The great question of the meaning of life can haunt, inspire, dominate and even be used to control us politically and spiritually, yet by using the clear and simple outline in Victor E. Frankl’s brilliant and powerful Man’s Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust, this piece outlines how you can use the profoundly important process of discovering a purpose through suffering that is unique to your own sense of profound meaning and mission in life.
Like many lost young men, I spent years musing on the meaning, or more accurately meaninglessness of life, and really moved nowhere, despite being incredibly pretentious, smoking cigarettes and considering myself more intelligent than other people.
I love the Dr. Jordan Peterson quote that savagely halts such folly: “If you think there’s no meaning to your life go and tell that to a child with brain cancer.”
There’s a shock value to that which has the effect of reminding you that life is a blessing: If you can appreciate simply being alive, then watch your life transform.
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the deepest and most powerful insight into this notion I’ve ever read.
In this most impactful of texts on the horror and resilience of humanity, Frankl articulates his time in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps in painfully brutal detail.
Torn from his wife and not knowing her condition, Frankl witnesses a level of torture you won’t have seen in your nightmares.
Icy cold snowy hikes with heavy backpacks and no shoes, perpetual starvation, madness-inducing torment, rape and whippings only scratch the surface of life in a concentration camp.
Yet throughout all of this, Frankl maintained his sanity, and in surviving Auschwitz he did not fall to the same insane nihilism (meaninglessness of life) that his Nazi captors did.
Logotherapy and the Power of a Goal
Frankl is adamant that his emotionally compelling goal of rewriting his manuscript for his new psychological theory (after the Nazi’s had burned the first one) was absolutely fundamental to his survival in Auschwitz.
By having a goal, Frankl offered himself a context for his present experiences and conditions, meaning they could become bearable by virtue of having a hope they would end and he could use his experience for good.
So, not only did having a goal to establish logotherapy give Frankl the strength to endure extremely brutal conditions, it also fostered profound meaning on those very conditions.
Frankl was keenly aware of this and used his time in concentration camps to scientifically analyze human behaviour at its most fundamental, uncivilized and appalling.
In a sense, he utilized his horrifying conditions as live and active data for his end goal.
I touch on this methodology in the video below. In recovery from addiction, we often feel we’ve wasted our lives, but it is that very pain and experience we can use to define our life purpose.
Logotherapy, according to Frankl, “…focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.
“…In logotherapy the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his life.”
Frankl takes the key operative word logo of logotherapy from the Greek notion of ‘logos’, which loosely translates as ‘meaning’, and uses that as the central structure on which to build sound foundations for a life purpose.
If you are in a state of confusion as to what your purpose is at present, Frankl makes it clear that this is no problem. Your purpose in this instance is simply looking for your purpose and that is a noble aim.
However, the eventual meaning that a man is seeking needs to be unique and specific to you, as Frankl writes: “…only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
If you are in the process of defining your purpose in life, the following quick insights can act as a guide to expedite that process:
The Value of Work and Application of Purpose
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you to learn that the Nazi’s perfected emotional and spiritual as well as physical torture.
The famous words that emblazoned the Auschwitz gates read “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning ‘Work Will Set You Free’.
Such a statement had sadistically cruel connotations, as while the inmates of Auschwitz were informed it was work that would set them free, they would, of course, work only to be killed.
There is a deep-seated fundamental notion embedded in humanity that our work must have a purpose: If we are to work, we expect to be paid/rewarded/see the benefits of our work.
Studies show time and again what common sense already tells us, that he who loves his work is happy.
The Nazi’s were fully aware of this and would torment inmates to absolute destitution and psychological breakdown by forcing them on the pain of beatings or death to perform brutal tasks of hard labour, only to tell them once they were done that the task was meaningless, they would receive no reward for doing it and force them to do it all over again on the pain of death.
This was how the Nazi’s broke the spirit of their prisoners so they could manipulate their every move, leading them to force prisoners to oversee other prisoners, getting rewards for how brutally they could treat their fellow man.
In essence, the prisoners were subjected to the torture of a meaningless existence by virtue of other men debasing the meaning of their reality.
Work equaled no reward, no progression, no meaning.
How Frankl inoculated himself against this was in his aforementioned focus on his future goal and how he could apply himself toward that in his present conditions.
Evoking Nietzsche, Frankl paraphrases the famous line: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
In plain English, Nietzsche’s point is that if we can see purpose in our life, we can face any form of external hardship.
The key point is that what makes life bearable is the implementation of a purpose and the notion that you are working towards that purpose.
Man Must Strive
As Frankl expands on his concept of logotherapy, he expounds that sound mental health is based on a sort of tension between what a man has already achieved and what he is still to accomplish.
With the mindless, debasing torture of the Nazi’s where work is deeply meaningless, man will fall to nihilism for he is stuck without the ability to grow in any way.
Therefore Frankl is definitively stating that meaning and sound mental health come from the pursuit of an achievable goal.
“What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
“What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
The Meaning of Life
As we come full circle, we can re-approach the big question.
We have seen through the prism of Frankl’s experiences in the utter meaninglessness of life that meaning must be personally derived and acted out in the form of goal-pursuit.
It is at this point, and gladly so, that we as men with meaning have to let go of the abstract notions of a meaning of life.
We will never find meaning in thinking, it is literally and metaphorically a dead-end, only in the pursuit of a goal that is emotionally compelling and unique to us do we find our existence imbued with colour.
Frankl writes of this: “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique.”
Frankl later adds: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
In the same manner, as we need not question why music is beautiful, but feel it course through us, so too man must seek to experience life via the power of his personal purpose coursing through his very being.
In the quest then to discover the meaning of life, you must look inward to measure your current experience against a future goal that only you can define.
In such a pursuit, the meaning will come.