Just what is the meaning of life? The Authors Collection.
November 27, 2014
I RECENTLY FINISHED a second reading of Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. A psychiatrist and neurologist by training, Dr. Frankl, at age thirty-nine, found himself a prisoner at Auschwitz and then moved to a camp associated with Dachau. It was under the intensely forbidding circumstances of prison life that he was compelled to begin exploring the nature of and need for meaning in human existence. One of the conclusions he drew was that man can find meaning in any situation and, in fact, must, for it is only through meaningful existence that we can endure, even the intense suffering he knew.
Amongst all its gruesome imagery, the book is liberating. My first reading of it years ago allowed me to understand the power that comes to those willing to take responsibility for their lives. I figured if Frankl managed to live without blaming others for his fate, horrible as it appeared, how could I stand there and point fingers at others in a much less dire set of circumstances? That choice invited me to look more deeply into my life. When I did, what I saw was me assigning meaning to the actions and events around me not searching for meaning within them. The former results in blaming others and traps you in your fate. The latter gives you a vision of how you can endure and rise beyond the problem confronting you.
We are raised to be far more interested in assigning meaning than in accessing it. Prisoners in a concentration camp, however, can’t afford that luxury if they want to survive. That’s what Victor Frankl came to understand and made incredibly clear to me: We choose how to perceive our circumstances; we then get to live with what we chose. This is the most accessible level on which the search for meaning exists, but there are others.
When Mark Twain observed: “The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day your find out why,” most people assume the quote refers to some mighty achievement or a holy grail for our personal lives. We anguish over the lack of sense and fulfillment our lives offer us and assume finding that would be the be-all end-all. However, as grand as a meaningful project or relationship can be, they are not the hallmark of human existence. There is an even more profound yearning for meaning at the species level, cosmic rather than personal. Life is meant to expand, not contract. We are creatures of incalculable wisdom and creativity. We are meant to be free spirits, unattached to the plethora of habits (mindlessly applied meanings) that keep us petty and afraid. That explains to me why in one of those seeming unbearable moments when Viktor Frankl cried out for relief what came to him were these words: I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.”
Ultimately we are here to grasp the fundamental meaning of human nature – spacious, serene and unchanging. We are called to know beyond doubt what we are and why we are here. Imagine a life driven by that search for meaning. Just imagine…
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