This past winter I walked through the lowest and darkest valley of my life. Even now, half a year later, that valley is never far from view.
During those dark days I struggled with questions of purpose and meaning – and I mean really struggled, rather than in an academic or theoretical sense. Somewhere during that dark season I came across the umpteenth reference to Victor Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Finally, I decided to read the book for myself.
One aside, before I dive into my topic of the search for meaning: I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. That being said, while I have read some history of the Holocaust previously, I still found myself nauseated on more than one occasion as I read of the atrocities human beings are capable of inflicting on one another.
Meaning according to Victor Frankl
Frankl makes an interesting observation in his book. He notes that men who decided they had nothing left to live for invariably died soon thereafter. Frankl argues that the question for man is not whether he still has anything for which to live, but instead what does the world still require of the man. This distinction, on its surface, almost sounds semantic. The more I meditated on this idea though, the more I realized how profoundly different are the two ideas.
“Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more.’ What sort of answer can one give to that?
“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. 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 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.”
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
This concept is at profoundly at odds with the prevailing mindset of our culture. We live in a society where the measure of life is one’s own satisfaction and pleasure. In other words, unless we consciously choose otherwise, our cultural experience will condition us toward being self-centered, self-serving, and self-pleasing. In this context, when man makes himself to be the center of his universe, it is logical to conclude that there is no point left to life if it looks like we have lost all that matters.
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man 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.’”
Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The argument here is not semantic. It is instead to turn our self-centered worldview upside down and instead embrace our responsibility as human beings. Considering our role in the world, and the irreplaceable part we are called to play, results in a very different perspective in suffering.
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
One of the things that kept me going this past year, after realizing the profound depth of this truth, was a new granddaughter. Every time I despaired of continuing on in the face of soul-crushing loss, every time I thought that every desire and sense of meaning which I once embraced had been torn away, I forced myself to ask what it was that the world still required of me. I would like to think that I still have something to offer to the world in my work, but I honestly do not know what, if anything, that is at this point. What I do know, and what I could meaningfully embrace during my darkest days, instead concerned a person.
I could not shake the memory of a conversation I had with my daughter earlier in the winter.
“Hayley only has one grandfather,” she said. “And a baby needs her grandfather.”
I do not recall anything else from that conversation, and I do not know whether my daughter even recalls the conversation. Nonetheless, that statement was powerful medicine as I struggled to find meaning.
Regardless of whether I though there was anything left for me, there was still something required of me. There was a tiny baby, who had been through too much already, who required a grandfather – however imperfect, damaged, and scarred.