Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Our Search for Meaning

It is impossible, I believe, to talk about meaning without talking about the work of Viktor Frankl. Frankl (1905-1997)

was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, which is a form of existential analysis. His best-selling book Man's Search for Meaning chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. (Wikipedia)
I first read the book in college and have done more study of it since. His was referred to as the third Viennese school of psychotherapy. The reason, I think, is that he delves into the dark side of human existence and finds that it is not as hopeless as it may seem. After surviving the Holocaust, he wondered why some survived and others, all other things being equal, did not. It was in the finding of meaning that he found his answer. Even in the midst of such unspeakable suffering, meaning is possible.
According to Frankl, "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "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".

Frankl emphasized that realizing the value of suffering is meaningful only [emphasis added] when the first two creative possibilities are not available (for example, in a concentration camp) and only when such suffering is inevitable – he was not proposing that people suffer unnecessarily.
The truth in that seems obvious, at least to me. It is why, I believe, finding deeper meaning in life is so important to our health and well-being. Life cannot be meaningful only when things are going well. We must be able to access meaning at other times as well.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.
Viktor E. Frankl
The suffering itself may not be meaningful. In fact it may be nothing short of evil, as in the Holocaust or hundreds of other examples of the last half-century in many corners of the globe. Neither is it the suffering that gives meaning. Meaning can be found, somehow or another, in the depths of our lives, no matter what. Yes, that is incredible. That is beyond most of our experiences in our everyday lives. Only someone like Frankl, who discovered this in one of the most evil actions of bringing suffering unimagineable, can bring us to consider this idea.

It is also not some general idea or ideal that Frankl talks about. It is unique and connected to each of our lives at any given moment.
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.
Viktor E. Frankl
My own personal search for deeper meaning, all of our individualized expressions of meaning are a living, evolving, and growing part of who we are. We look within, and around, to see what it is we may do or be today.

That is exciting.

In this week when I think about the deeper meaning of life, I pause and meditate on Viktor Frankl's great contribution to human thought.

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