Our Search for Meaning
In my senior year of high school my Religion teacher assigned a book that profoundly influenced me, in fact, it changed my life.
I think that was the point.
I still have my original copy, now yellowed, underlined and marked up with notes from multiple readings, because the lessons still resonate to this day.
Yesterday I clicked on an article from Inc., another of those “one thing” articles, this one on how to stress less in 2021.
Here I am decades later, reading an article with someone offering advice from a book I read in high school. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.
Viktor Frankl, psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has been studied since its publication in 1959.
The first, autobiographical half of his book details Frankl’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp, while the second half details the principles of his logo-therapy. The second half is more educational, whereas the first half is more inspirational, and more memorable.
Three passages affected me so profoundly that I’ve memorized them.
THE POWER TO CHOOSE
The first passage is, “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, to choose one’s own way.”
I read that passage at a particularly low point in my high school career and in my life (some close relationships just ended), a life-preserver thrown to a drowning teenager.
This idea, that I had the ability to choose how I respond to the vicissitudes of life, that I didn’t have to be a victim of circumstances, that I could re-frame my situation in such a way that I could come out stronger changed my entire mindset for the better.
This idea went beyond that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger because more than just hoping I’d come out tougher, it gave me agency to affect how I moved forward from hardships and letdowns — I wasn’t helpless.
THE POWER OF WHY
The second passage is, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
My kids’ favorite word is, why, mostly used in the context of “why do I have to go to school, why won’t you give me all the toys I want, why do I have to do the dishes,” yet somewhere along the way we lose our curiosity and forget the power of asking why.
Whenever I needed to take action, I used to default to HOW I was going to succeed, all the exact steps I was going to take.
I got caught up in the minutiae, and when I didn’t have all the answers as to how I was going to proceed, I would get frustrated and fall into despair.
Instead, I now began to focus on WHY, all the reasons to succeed, and when my WHYs became strong and plentiful enough, I then had all the energy, drive and determination I needed to face any challenge.
I could bear the sacrifices, the drudgery, the setbacks, and all the times when it didn’t seem as if I were making any headway.
From then on, I have always been able to bear any HOW because I knew the WHY.
THE POWER OF LOVE
The final passage is, “for the first time in my life, I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”
A powerful “why” Frankl credited for surviving his imprisonment was that he held on to the belief that he must stay alive long enough to be reunited with his wife because the women were separated out from the men.
Unbeknownst to Frankl, his wife was already dead, executed by the Nazis, yet his love for her and his hope to see her again kept him from despair.
In Frankl’s case the love was romantic, but he extends his concept to love of family, to friends and to universal love for all living beings — to love, not to being loved.
A POWERFUL MODEL
Frankl offers a simple, powerful model for living a meaningful life: be aware that you have the power to choose how to respond to any situation, find powerful, moral reasons for living as you choose, then live with all the love you can.
Sounds like a winning formula to me.