Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Man's Search For Meaning

Yesterday I finished reading Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning.

Frankl spent three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

He writes, movingly, about his experiences and how those in the camps, including himself, learned to find meaning in their suffering or, if they did not, they gave up and died. Dying in the camps was easy as a result of physical breakdown due to illness, starvation, overwork and the brutality heaped upon them. And if one stepped out of line, there was always the bullet to the head.

In regard to cultivating a feeling that life is worth living, this is a quote of Frankl's that I find most profound:

"We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us."

"We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly."

"Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct."

"Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."

In today's society, in which we are urged by our culture to be concerned only with our own survival and our own selfish desires, there is a distinct lack of meaning.

Few even think to ask what life is asking of them in the moment and whether they are responding with integrity.

Take away the television, games, movies and all the distractions and what would people have to fill their lives? I imagine many of us would fall into panic attacks, having nothing to give us the illusion that our lives are full.

We fill them with opinions, arguing, buying, selling, driving, drinking, drugs, sex, being clever and being entertained.

How many of us fill our moments with deliberately choosing love over fear and doing the right thing over doing the expedient thing? How many of us will stoop to pick up a piece of garbage that we have not thrown upon the ground, much less refrain from dropping our own garbage upon the world?

Americans, as a whole, want nothing to do with unpleasantness. We have been gladly sold the bill of goods that there should be no unpleasantness, no suffering, no hard choices in our lives.

Certainly we should not wallow in what is negative. It is Universal Law that whatever you place your attention on - positive or negative - that will expand in your life.

Yet we cannot be blind to the suffering of others. We cannot throw off the suffering - the empathy - we feel for the suffering of others, or cultivate numbness. When we lose empathy - which the Bible refers to as charity - we lose our humanity. For empathy is the only thing that separates us from the reptiles.

Frankl writes about suffering. He was a firm believer that suffering is inevitable for humans, but that we can - and should strive - to give it meaning.

For instance, if your spouse dies and you are heartbroken and feel life is meaningless, Frankl would ask you: What if you had died first and your spouse was left behind?

If your answer is that it would have been just as agonizing - or worse - for your spouse to have lost you, then your suffering has meaning. For you have spared your spouse that suffering by taking it on yourself, instead. This is what makes suffering heroic.

Yet, suffering that is avoidable is not dignified nor heroic, but masochistic, for it is not necessary to suffer to find meaning. Only suffering that is unavoidable and endured with dignity, especially if to migigate the suffering of another, is heroic.

Ultimately the individual is the one who determines, in his heart, whether his suffering was avoidable or necessary and meaningful.

Frankl recommends that each person imagine him or herself to be eighty years old and on his deathbed.

From that perspective, look at your life and see if it has had meaning.

Frankl's imperative is: Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now."

Then do what you know is right. Act from the heart, act from empathy, act out of courage and fearlessness.

His last advice is:

"...For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.

So, let us be alert - alert in a twofold sense:

Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.

And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake."

Truly a book worth reading!

I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. Acts 24:16

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. Corinthians 13:1


At 6/13/2006 2:10 PM, Blogger Jay Denari said...


He's got some good points there -- it's always difficult to watch people you care about suffering today over past events/traumas when you know they have the strength needed to challenge those meemories.

But, in our society, suffering is often senseless -- there was no "meaning" to Auschwitz -- it wasn't God's test for the faithful or any such thing. It was simple brutality that some people were strong enough to survive.

If we want to find real meaning, we need to combine forces to eradicate the brutality, on both social and individual levels, b/c mass atrocities like Auschwitz are "only" a magnified version of what goes on in far too many homes to too many children everyday.

On an unrelated note, I thought of you when I saw this link: The Progressive Faith BlogCon.


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