How important is it to have meaning in your life, to be living for a purpose?
Does having a purpose make life worth living or is your purpose in life to make it meaningful?
Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” aims to shed light on these very questions that have perplexed generations.
Viktor was a psychiatrist in Vienna in the 1940s before he was deported to Auschwitz and spent 4 years in concentration camps. As a psychiatrist he explored the importance of one identifying their meaning in life and worked in mental hospitals to help those who had attempted suicide find meaning in going on.
Viktor knew from early on that he had a gift for helping people and that understanding human psychology was the key to opening that gift. However, he never knew that a journey through multiple concentration camps would lead him to the realizations he needed to explore how life has meaning even through the most incomprehensible suffering.
When Viktor entered his first camp he had a one and twenty eight chance of survival as did anyone else who had not been immediately sentenced to death upon arrival. The camps stripped men of everyone and thing they held dear. Given these profoundly negative circumstances psychoanalysts, such as Freud, a prominent doctor during this time, assumed that all the people in these camps would act the same, losing their individuality and resorting to become savages of their most basic needs. What Viktor observed was something very different.
Individuality was still reflected, some people were able to find hope despite the horrendous circumstances. Although there was no immediate promise of freedom, they held on to their lives with the conviction that there was meaning in the suffering and that when they became free they had a responsibility to live their lives to the fullest. Others succumbed to their environmental constraints, waking up one day and not getting out of bed, lying in their waste, allowing death or the guards to take their lives.
The hardships they all faced were the worst circumstances any individual in the 20th century can conjure thoughts of. Viktor shares the many ways they were treated poorly and the struggles they endured in the dead of winter in Poland. Sitting in my warm room in the middle of winter, thinking about digging a railroad ditch without warm clothing in sub-zero temperatures, with edema and sadistic guards at my side, thoroughly makes me appreciate the freedom so many have given their lives for.
More than that, I am impressed by Viktor’s reflections on his experience and how he used his experience to teach others to appreciate their life’s meaning. In the second half of Viktor’s book he shares his therapy technique, entitled Logotherapy. Logotherapy assists a patient in realizing the meaning of their life. According to Logotherapy we can discover this meaning 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.
Viktor goes on to explain that “what man actually needs is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, freely chosen by them.”
Moreover, that each person’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. Net, although many psychoanalysts will state that man’s activities are only directed toward pleasure and the avoidance of pain, there is much more to the human experience.
Through his work he finds “the more humans forget themselves in a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human he is and the actualized he himself becomes.” When Viktor was up against his biggest challenges, it was the love of his wife and the purpose of publishing his book that enabled him to transcend his circumstances. Through bravely accepting the challenge of suffering to meet his ultimate destination, he was able to hold onto hope and his life.
The afterword of the book acknowledges that we live in a time of finding most of the meaning of our lives in our achievements. What Viktor aims to share in his personal account and research is that there is an abundance of meaning to be found in life beyond achievements. The ability to experience and share love, appreciate beauty, boldly accept suffering and to choose to look at the adversity in life positively, can bring meaning and transcendence beyond our biological constraints.
What Viktor intends through his therapy is to help people understand that they are not fully conditioned and determined by their environment, biology or society, rather they determine themselves to give into conditions or stand up to them. This in turn gives meaning to their lives continually.
When we ask ourselves about the meaning of our lives, it is a precarious question, because the meaning continually changes and is created by us. We have the power to create our legacy and significance in this life. Of course you will experience setbacks, genetic barriers and adverse circumstances, but learning how to use these in a positive way is how you will attain the fullest meaning of your life.