What Is the Meaning of Life? Viktor Frankl Tackled That Question After His Experience in a Concentration Camp
Search for Meaning: Revelation
The classroom smelled like stress and pencil lead and fifty-four pages held their future. Giving the scripted placement test on my Saturday off meant one thing to me - $125, but what did it mean to them? College represents the golden ticket; the way to a meaningful goal-oriented, successful life. And as I watched them mentally scrambling in their seats, I started wondering who would succeed. The girl swearing under her breath? The boy with all the answers? The pale girl with tears in her eyes? The quiet boy with studious glasses or the flirtatious girl behind him?
I was killing time and asking myself these questions when I realized I no better knew the meaning of life than the students in this room had answers to the test. Lately, I'd been feeling disgruntled and I started making lists. Every time someone asked me how I was, I detailed everything that was wrong in my life. Sitting there watching these students teeter on the cusp of adulthood, I figured it was time to stop.
Seach for Meaning - Providence
I stopped because answers come in the strangest places. For two weeks I had been perusing local libraries on a mission to find a timeless classic I'd read about in a magazine blurb. The book was Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist/neurologist, who spent time in concentration camp. Finally, some gracious librarian located a dingy, stained copy and it was sent from a distant E ZBorrow office in Harrisburg, PA. It arrived just as I was finishing up a two week stint of bad luck - I'll spare you the details...
Search for Meaning - Summary
Frankl's view on life's meaning is really quite simple. You may think it trite and unpretentious, but perhaps we've made it too complex. The age-old questions of "Why am I here?" or "What is the meaning of this all?" will never be easily answered, but some thoughts from Frankl's book have been summarized below. Perhaps, like me, you will find some morsel of wisdom that will help lift you out of life's unexpected mire and get you back on track.
- LIFE IS EXPECTING SOMETHING FROM YOU
Frankl simplifies what he thinks makes life meaningful by using experiences during his encampment. He says, "I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument - they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them." (79)
When people have goals, when they don't give up, when they have something to live for, they are more resilient.
- EVEN IN SUFFERING, OPPORTUNITY IS PRESENT
Even in suffering and hellish circumstances, Frankl says of man, "...opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden." (78)
We tend to view difficult circumstances as an enemy to the prosperous, wonderful lives we think we deserve to be living. We have a tendency to think that if life gets hard, then it fails to have meaning. This common train of woeful thought is responsible for the vast majority of self-pity victims. Missing the fact that suffering comes to even the best human beings is missing an opportunity that presents itself for self-growth.
- A TENSIONLESS LIFE SHOULD NOT BE OUR GOAL
We are constantly hearing that in order to rid ourselves of the unhappiness that comes with a meaningless life, we must rid ourselves of stress. Frankl calls this ridding a “tensionless state” and it is often prescribed as a means of well-being.
Frankl says, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” (107)
Always attempting to escape “stress” is simply a way of escaping the striving toward goals that each of us is personally intended to reach.
- YOU CANNOT BE REPLACED AND YOUR LIFE CANNOT BE REPEATED
People, says Frankl, " are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves... Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therefore, he cannot be replaced nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed." (105, 110)
We're heard this a thousand times before - we are each unique. If we do not identify our "concrete assignment" in life - it is lost, because only we could fulfill it.
- RESPOND TO LIFE BY BEING RESPONSIBLE
"Ultimately," according to Frankl, "man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." (110)
How can it get simpler - "...live," says Frankl "as if you were living already for the second time ." (111)
Life is asking us to be responsible.
Your reason, your vocation, your project, your children, your grandchildren, your passion for a charity... whatever it is - it's all waiting for you to discover. Find your specific task for your specific life and then live it.
Today, a week later, I lost a hub cap. Instead of adding to my list in my month of bad luck, I got back in car and retraced my drive until I found it in someone's front yard. Even if I hadn't found it, I wasn't going to grieve something replaceable.
The biggest thing was, I didn't add it to the list because the list no longer exists. Instead, I came home in the freshly fallen snow and at 50 years old, I built a snowman... by myself and took a picture of it for my grandson. I reveled in the beauty of nature, my freedom and my physical health because I remembered to live like I was living for the second time.
"Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker." - That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.) - Nietzsche
Frankl, V., (2006). Man's Search for Meaning. Beacon Press.
Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength. -August Wilson