“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
- Dr. Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logo-therapy (aka Meaning Therapy) was interned in a Nazi concentration camp as a laborer. The living conditions were horrid, cold, wreaking of human feces, with person upon person packed into decrepit shelters like overcrowded chickens in a hen house. The food was insufficient, tasteless and often rotten. The labor was hard and often at the hands of sadistic task masters who took delight is dispensing some of the most heinous treatment imaginable. All of this under the constant specter of disease, intimidation, the gas chambers and the dread that comes from wondering what happened to your loved ones. As he recounts his story, he talked about a dehumanizing transition which occurred in many of the fellow prisoners. They would often turn on each other, serve their own survival at all costs and often, it ended in their own death, often by suicide. While other prisoners were just the opposite - despite the same despicable conditions- they did not seem to lose themselves. Upon careful observation, those who managed to hang onto their humanity were those who fought to choose a better attitude about their situation. Those prisoners were able to find meaning in the day to day and in the hope that one day they would be re-united with their families. They found hope of faith and in some cases, a desire to die well, and this positioned them in a grace to endure, to resist the dehumanization, illness and in many cases death.
“Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl
Genuine meaning brings a certain vitality to our lives - meaning which is intricately intertwined with hope, faith and love can infuse a life with a transcendent significance. It inspires our individual choices in response to those things which we have no control over and those in which we do.
In a general sense, meaning is found in three areas:
1) Creating something or doing a deed - Many of us are inspired by achieving a goal. This goal can be to live long enough to see a new grandchild, or to work towards a cure for cancer, a professional or creative goal or to see a life’s work completed. This is a sense of vocation or mission which one is uniquely inspired to work towards.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life… Therein 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.” - Dr. Viktor Frankl
2) Love - by experiencing something or encountering someone deeply - Love is a very powerful force as many for the sake of love for another willingly lay down their lives. My father-in-law worked 35 years in a job he hated. In 35 years he only missed one day of work. What motivated him to do so? His love for his family and his desire to provide for them. This created meaning to his job, and this meaning made it bearable and gave it purpose.
3) The posture we take towards unavoidable suffering - Suffering is a bit trickier. The kind of suffering I am writing about is unavoidable. To suffer in a situation which you have the power to change is a different kind of suffering. To suffer from injustice, a disease, death is very painful and very difficult but even in these situations meaning can be found. Meaning that can change the way you respond to your suffering. Perhaps to die well as an encouragement and inspiration to others, to be an agent of relational healing within our families or to unrelentingly stand for a value or principle bigger than ourselves.
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl
To discover meaning is not the same thing as self-actualization. Authentic, transformational meaning is found in self-transcendence, in things bigger than ourselves! When we pursue that which is meaningful, that which is bigger than ourselves, a funny thing often happens! We naturally trip into self-actualization, we discover we are happy, we discover peace, we discover who we are - all of which are elusive and fickle when pursued as a goal themselves.
A pandemic cultural nihilism leaves us in a place where everything is meaningless. In this existential vacuum with nothing else outside of ourselves – it is no wonder we are scrambling to find a sense of significance in just about anything we can. These typically all centre around us for in a nihilistic world, all that really ends up mattering to us is us. Our comfort, contentment, and happiness is not bad stuff but quite elusive absent of self-transcendence. The existential vacuum exists in a state of boredom or a lack of transcendent passion. The task is to push back the dark cloud of self-absorption and rediscover things of significance – virtues such as justice, honesty / integrity, generosity, sacrifice, service, beauty or in a word: love.
In the fullness of love we look beyond ourselves and this at its core is the primary constituent of meaning because love alone has the overwhelming power to affect change, to inspire, to heal and to bring life. Is it any wonder that John of Bible fame would write “God is love.“
“What man actually needs is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for some 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.” - Dr. Viktor Frankl