If anyone on our list could be credited with writing the book on the meaning of life, it is Victor Frankl. His 1946 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, rescued the topic from the clutches of the two bottomless pits that had made the question largely irrelevant - much of existentialist philosophy on the one hand and much of dogmatic religion on the other. The first, with the aid of science, rendered the question obsolete by virtue of unequivocally declaring that there was no meaning to life. The second rendered it immaterial since it had already been answered. Frankl opened up an entirely new pathway for those who realized that they did not fit comfortably in either camp.
Victor Frankl (1905 – 1997) was a Jewish psychologist from Vienna whose is credited with creating what is called the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, known as logotherapy. Logotherapy rejects the earlier ideas of pleasure or power as the basic drives in the human mind, employing instead ‘therapy through meaning’, because psychological issues are resolved through finding meaning in life.
While his school of psychotherapy is significant enough, it pales in the popular mind in comparison to his major book. Man’s Search for Meaning was written in 1946 following Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp. His book is largely based on his experiences in Dachau. Conditions, needless to say, were brutal and primitive, and went from horrible to worse as time progressed. Frankl’s narrative is unusual for this genre in that he attempts to examine the experience through the eyes of a psychologist. His description of the emotional ups and downs of the prisoners is incredibly vivid and illuminating. The narrative section is less than 100 pages long and can hardly be put down.
The title of the book (the original title was ‘A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp’) is based on Frankl’s observation that those who survived were those who had a reason to go on, while those who died were those who had lost that reason. This idea, that meaning is the strongest driving force in human motivation, is logotherapy in a nutshell. Frankl had already begun exploring this idea as much as two decades earlier and there is no question that the core of his theory had been formulated prior to his camp experience. The time in the camp, however, cemented the idea in his mind, as he saw his fellow human beings cut down to their most basic sense of survival. All else was stripped away and the true frailty of a human confronted with his own death on a daily basis wore away all superficialities. All that was left was the will to go on, or to give in to the inevitable.
The following is as close as it gets to Frankl’s answer to the central question (p. 76-77):
‘What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.'
'These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment…Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements…Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.’
There is no singular answer to the question. That’s what it boils down to. But that does not mean that there is no meaning to life. On the contrary, there are an infinite number of meanings to life, depending on the situation a given person is in at the moment. As Frankl emphasizes, in a situation as desperate as a concentration camp, personal expectations and plans were more likely a hindrance to survival. What mattered was figuring out ‘what life expected from us’. He goes so far as to apply this to the suffering itself (p. 77-78):
‘When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him or his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.’
These are dramatic statements that challenge both Jewish and Christian ideas of meaning and suffering. It places each one of us in a solitary place in the grand scheme of things. The task that we face at any given time is to find the correct way of dealing with whatever hand life has dealt us. As we confront that challenge, we will be experiencing that moment’s meaning of life. Life has nothing to offer us, no great opportunity for revelation or understanding. But life does offer us countless opportunities to rise up to life’s challenges and to become the unique person worthy of those challenges.
This approach is not particularly religious. Nevertheless, his fundamental idea is profoundly religious. There is no moment in life, no situation, which is devoid of an opportunity to find meaning. This directly opposes the atheist underpinnings of much of modern philosophy which frequently stresses the ultimate meaninglessness of everything. Modern science, with its emphasis on the mechanical and material nature of all reality, is almost invariably used as a solid proof for this belief. Frankl’s finding potential meaning in every personal situation may not be religious in the traditional sense, but it sure suggests that the meaning one finds is real, and not merely a trick to keep persevering against all opposition.
Frankl speaks of ‘destiny’ and ‘tasks’ and ‘opportunities’, as if they are created by life for us. He only rarely mentions God, seemingly preferring to leave this description of the guiding force behind life to the traditional religions. However, he concludes the narrative portion of the book with his description of the prisoner coming home (p. 93): ‘The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God.’ God, perhaps, is the hidden force that enables life to dole out these infinite tasks and opportunities and to forge destinies.
In spite of Frankl’s insistence that there is no universal answer to the question of the meaning of life, he does allow a possibility. On one particularly depressing occasion, as he was marching to a worksite before dawn, he was inspired to think of his wife. Not knowing where she was or even if she was still alive, her image nevertheless became firmly fixed in his mind (p. 37):
‘A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved…’
Life does have something to offer us in addition to the demands it makes of us. It offers us the possibility of finding love. This emotion, unique in the way that it binds one being to another, enables us to weather any storm that life may cast at us. It is strange that life, with its ceaseless barrage of suffering and challenge, should be so kind as to provide this magnificent gift. But it does. It seems that Frankl’s revelation as he walked amidst the hopelessness of the concentration camp was that this miraculous bonus does indeed exist. Most of us, who thankfully never experienced the stark reality of the camps, may have trouble appreciating this hidden miracle. We more than likely take love for granted, seeing it as a birthright to be enjoyed whenever we want and cast aside when we no longer desire it. Suffering and hopelessness have their benefits – they may enable us to glimpse the beauty that lies hidden behind a veil of comfort and security.
Readers of Frankl’s book may question the power of the drive for meaning under more prosaic circumstances. Maybe it works in a concentration camp, but is it so effective under the comforts of modern society? How many people today really sense this drive or even care if it is there or not? The drive for meaning is undergoing what is probably the greatest challenge it has ever faced, the challenge of apathy and ease. It almost seems as if life no longer cares to throw those curveballs at us any longer, that the entire exercise is one grand waste of time. How does man search for meaning when life seems to be uninterested in what we do with it?
That last question is the lament of a generation. We can look back whimsically to the tragically heroic days of the Holocaust to find answers, but rarely find anything in our current situation to inspire our lives with meaning. Previous generations had to struggle to survive. The big challenge is how to make life even easier. Where do we search?
Nobody said the search was easy. Perhaps Frankl had it right when he said that we should expect nothing from life but ask what life expects from us. Life currently demands of us something that it may have never demanded from any previous generation – find meaning when all is meaningless. How are we going to meet this challenge? Where should we begin? First off, we have to remember that it is a search. Searches are not supposed to be easy. Otherwise they wouldn’t be a search. We have to dig, to uncover, to rethink, to be prepared to change. It may require a different lifestyle, a new focus, a new attitude. At the very least, we all must recognize that life does indeed expect something from us, and that we cannot go through it with no more concern than strolling around a shopping mall.
If we walk away from Frankl’s book with anything it should be this: we won’t find any meaning in life if we don’t search for it. Meaning no longer comes as an automatic part of the package, assuming it ever did. Perhaps now, more than ever in the past, the big challenge that life is presenting us with is to search for meaning in the face of meaninglessness. It is a formidable challenge and one that most people will want no part of, believing that it is all just one big wild goose chase. But the challenge is to do it anyway. That is our purpose. Perhaps our situation has created a new answer to the great question: the purpose of life is to search for meaning in life.
Food for Thought
Frankl was attempting to fill in the vacuum of meaninglessness without resorting to traditional notions of God or tradition religious answers. Is it just a futile attempt to find meaning when none is really there?
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Date: 02/01/17 at 04:34:37
It is interesting to note that he was actually somewhat religious, putting on tefillin daily.