Living with meaning

Recently I was inspired by Emily Esfahani Smith’s 2013 article in The Atlantic referencing Viktor Frankl’s ideas as articulated in his world changing book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Esfahani Smith notes that Frankl found the “meaningful life” much more important than the “happy life.”  She claims:

The book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

The life lived in pursuit of happiness, Frankl explains, lends one to being a “taker” in our society while the life lived in pursuit of meaning lends one to being a “giver.”  In the long run, those in the concentration camps who survived, he noted, were those who had found meaning in spite of the horrific circumstances in which they were placed, those who found meaning in serving the whole.

Daniel Quinn, in his far-seeing and brilliant book, Ishmael (1992), espoused, on a larger scale, the global chaos in our world today in those very same simple terms.  When humans stopped existing in “leaver” cultures, the hunting, gathering sort that adapted to their surroundings and left no trace upon the land in which they lived and largely transitioned to “taker” cultures, the agricultural behemoths who razed forests and adapted their surroundings to themselves any which way that suited them, the demise of our ecological balance began.  It has not stopped, and scientists now say that human environmental impact has become the reason for the sixth great extinction on planet earth.  (See National Geographic’s June 2015 article.)

Similarly, when individuals seek only selfish pleasures and attempt to adapt their surroundings to suit themselves, with no regard for the greater good, their hope of a meaningful life, which comes with a sustaining contentment, is lost.  Superficial pleasures will bring superficial short-lived happiness and a constant quest to seek, ever again, new superficial pleasures.  It is like eating only dessert for every meal – at some point the body will be not only be unsatisfied but also malnourished.

The point is: life comes with some sacrifice and some suffering, and we cannot escape the hardship.  Happily enough, enduring the suffering and gamely making the sacrifices adds to the meaning with which we live our lives.  It may not add to present moment happiness, but it gives us something more important, something more lasting: a reason to live.

Those who have a reason to live will live better and likely live longer than those who don’t (even the ones with fancy cars and heaps of trinkets and baubles).

Find your meaning.  Trust the universe to guide you to your best choices, those that will be for the greatest good.  Frankl himself made one of the greatest sacrifices I’ve ever heard of based on just this sort of spiritual guidance.  As Esfahani Smith explains:

By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.

That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first.

Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.

As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”

When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.

The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Many people in our society would question the correlation between the marble commandment and making such a life-changing and risky decision; they would say it was coincidence. However, as Carl Jung explained, there is no such thing as coincidence; we are guided all of the time.  “Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see,”  he says.  Famed spiritual author and teacher Caroline Myss explains further the specific guidance we get when we ask direct questions to the universe: “You will always receive guidance within a second of a prayer. To recognize the help, you must see everything in your life from that second on as part of the answer to your prayer.”    Frankl had the eyes to see, the wisdom to understand, and the courage to do.

It is worth our while to strive to be as human as possible, as humane as possible, as real as possible, as alive as possible, as connected as possible, as loving as possible, as true as possible, as humble as possible, as strong as possible, as giving as possible.  What changes in the one also changes the whole.  Truly, our lives are inescapably meaningful!  It is time to live them that way.


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