The Search for Meaning

Perhaps my greatest fear is that during my last days I will sadly reflect on a life I consider wasted.  To realize, only once it’s too late, that it all meant nothing.

Fortunately, an antidote to this fate is available to us all, should we only choose to follow the cues left by those who came before us.  Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, provides sage guidance in this respect.

As a psychiatrist, Frankl had a unique opportunity to analyze human behavior in this unimaginably horrific environment.  While he witnessed many perish, he also watched, and helped, many survive.

What allowed the few to endure while the majority would succumb? The lessons learned through his experience, and in his writing, are surprisingly applicable to us, even in today’s world.  These lessons will be the focus of this three-part series.

Frankl’s central lesson is a simple one, as voiced by Neitzsche: he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.  In other words, a fundamental requirement in life is a purpose, a meaning, a why.

“What is really needed is a fundamental change in our attitude toward life” – Viktor Frankl

In Frankl’s view, there are three ways of finding meaning: through self development and/or some creative work, through love and caring for others, and through courageous suffering.  In Auschwitz, those who survived were those who had meaningful work left to finish or had loved ones waiting for them – loved ones who depended on them – and therefore, they couldn’t allow themselves to perish.

Can you identify meaning in your life?

For those with strong family connections or children, this task will be much easier than for those who don’t.  However, putting family aside for now, the focus of the first-part in this series will be the meaning that can be found through personal development.

“You must create the meaning in your life, otherwise, life is meaningless” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Albeit, you can’t simply open your eyes, choose the first available path, and forever stroll down it in blissful joy. It’s more complicated than that, it’s a process, it’s trail and error.  But don’t despair, this struggle is a necessary cornerstone for an enriched life.  For many, including myself, finding meaning is a meaning in and of itself.

“To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner peace.  However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite to mental health” – Viktor Frankl

For those who feel lost, aimless, or are anxious for change, you are not alone and things are not hopeless; instead, the frustration you now feel is a requirement for your eventual redemption.  Frankl spoke of the gap between what has already been achieved and what is yet to be accomplished, between who one is and who one ought to become, he spoke of a challenge and of opportunity.

Challenge and opportunity, this is the perspective of life we must adopt.  Challenged to persevere and to overcome our obstacles, with the opportunity to live as those who we admire most; those who have found a path, their path, and have had the courage to follow it.

A crucial step is to pay attention to your experience in a purposeful way.  Ask yourself important questions, reflect on your day, your week, your year, your life – begin to identify aspects that may already contain the seed which could grow, if nourished, into meaningful purpose.

What is important to you?

When do you feel your best?

When do you feel your worst?

Your day-to-day experience will continually provide valuable clues; however, you must pay attention in order to notice them.

What are you good at?

What skill would you love to develop?

What sort of person do you want to become?

What vision of the future inspires you? What steps can you take today, and tomorrow, and the next, to realize that future?

You are capable of far more than you realize.

Nevertheless, the odds of quickly identifying your ultimate purpose is low, however, this isn’t the point; rather, the point is to find a direction to walk in – a direction that might contain meaning, and secondly, to establish a meaningful goal around which to organize yourself and your life.  A goal which will inform your thoughts and behavior.  This is a process of exploration and revision, of getting to know yourself and your opportunities for meaningful action.

As we walk in our chosen direction and achieve our goals, the fog which now surrounds us will begin to lift.  Our direction and our goals will become more and more refined until finally, our purpose becomes clear.

It may also be that you’ve already found a path and are satisfied with the direction your life has taken; obviously, this is a wonderful thing to have achieved, however, your work is not done – it never is.

“There were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom” – Viktor Frankl

No matter where we currently stand, we must never allow ourselves to stagnant, instead, we must commit to development.  Every day, every hour, we are given a choice on how we will spend our time and to what we will give our attention.  These decisions will dictate the shape that our lives take – for better or for worse.

Lifelong learning and development, ideally in a direction that imbues our lives with meaning, is a tried and true pathway to a life well lived.  Honor your challenges, continually seek to overcome them.  Choose to grow and to persevere through life’s endless obstacles.

“One could make a victory of their experience, turning life into a triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate” – Viktor Frankl

The driver seat is open – choose to sit down and take the wheel.

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