How Do We Find Meaning in Our Lives?
All of us go through times in our lives where we search for ways to find meaning.
We find meaning in many ways, through making genuine friendships and relationships or by fulfilling our deepest passions such as writing a book, traveling around the globe, or by helping those who need support. We create long-term, meaningful goals in life to aspire to, such as having our own family someday or being hugely successful in our dream jobs.
What if, all of a sudden, I was to tell you that from this moment on, everything that you find meaningful in your life will be stripped away from you? What would there be left worth living for?
Well, this is exactly what happened to Viktor Frankl- and he wrote a world-famous book about it.
Viktor Frankl is the Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and renowned author of the incredible memoir A Man’s Search for Meaning. This book has become a fundamental read for generations because of its insightful lessons about spiritual survival.
Between 1942 and 1945, Frankl was a prisoner in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He lost everything and everyone, including his parents, brother, and his pregnant wife who perished in these camps. For Frankl, every possession was lost, every value destroyed, and he continuously suffered from hunger, cold, and brutality, and the impending doom of extermination.
In his memoir, Frankl writes about his own experience and by observation, the experience of others in the camp and how they managed to find deep, spiritual meaning in suffering, as a way to endure traumatic and difficult circumstances.
The book starts with a pivotal scene depicted which pinpoints the moment he realized that his previous life before the camp was now meaningless. After trying to ask a Nazi general could he hold onto his manuscript which contained his whole life’s work, the Nazi simply replied by roaring ‘SH#T’ in Frankl’s face. Frankl stated, ‘At that moment I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.’
A psychiatrist who personally has faced such an extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to.
Find Meaning in Times of Suffering and Pain
In no way does Frankl’s book belittle the suffering that people went through in the camps. This should be said about anyone’s painful experiences, your feelings are truly valid. What Frankl’s book does is remind you that in those times of pain and suffering, there is meaning to be found in the struggle.
As Frankl stated, ‘Despite all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.’ People were suffering, but they still found meaning in their ‘inner life’, as Frankl terms it.
There is a defining moment for Frankl in the book when he is close to breaking point, but then his wife appears in his mind and he transports himself into his ‘inner life’. He said, ‘my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look.’
The powerful internal world of beauty and love that Frankl was able to tap into allowed him to find meaning in his suffering.
Why A Man’s Search for Meaning is an Essential Read
Our lives have been impacted by the pandemic of COVID-19. Seeing our friends and family, traveling to discover new parts of the world, going to an art exhibition, taking an exercise class, for some of us these meaningful experiences in our lives have been challenged and restricted. Many of us have been left feeling isolated and with a lack of direction.
This is why Frankl’s book is so important today. He reminds us that ‘everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ By choosing to find meaning in his suffering, Frankl found the ability to surpass the meaningless adversity of the camp’s daily existence and found powerful meaning in his spiritual freedom.
You too have a choice.
One of the most powerful moments of the book is when Frankl writes of a lady he spoke to in one of the camps, who was very close to her death.
‘This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her, she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life, I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.”
Like this lady, people in the camp never knew how long they would live. This type of existence is now defined as, ‘provisional existence of an unknown limit.” It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end.’
Such is life, you never know what fate will be delivered to you. When your existence has become provisional (for example, you experience another pandemic lockdown) or you’re struggling to find meaning in your life for any sort of reason, remember this- you too can choose the meaning you attach to the given situation and unlock the power of your inner strength.
True Existence Comes With Suffering
To conclude, I will leave you with a quote from the book that captures the true message of A Man’s Search for Meaning.
‘Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement. ‘
COVID-19 has led to a more grateful society that values human connection more than ever, realizing to not to take it for granted. Heartbreak has led to some of the most beautiful sonnets of the world. An apple falling on Newton’s head inspired the law of gravity.
A rainy day makes for a cozy day snuggled up with a book- such as this book right here. A Man’s Search for Meaning is essential reading for everyone. It offers powerful and insightful lessons on how to tap into your inner strength in times of adversity. Frankl reminds us that inside us all, we can find meaning and progress spiritually at any given moment, no matter what fate has in store for us.
Like this blog post? Why not check out our review on Deep Work by Cal Newport