“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
To be a neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author and the developer of logotherapy is quite impressive. But to do so while being a holocaust survivor is simply remarkable.
Viktor E. Frankl was a highly intellectual man, who entered Auschwitz with a manuscript of ideas on life and, once the manuscript got destroyed, he found meaning in recreating it. A meaning that helped him be a free man both during and after Auschwitz.
His book “Man’s search for meaning” was sitting on my shelf for quite some time, but thankfully I got reminded of it two weeks ago. It’s a common saying that the best way to teach and inspire is through actions and experiences and Viktor did exactly this. He used his unfortunate and harsh experiences at Auschwitz to discuss with us some fundamental questions on the meaning of life.
“What is the meaning of life?”, I often wonder. Is it to succeed and if so, how do we define success? Some would say the meaning of life is about having an impact in the world, others would say it is about raising a family or saving the animals and some would even say, there is no meaning at all. At the end, I was never able to disregard any of the answers given to me, but neither of the answers would ever satisfy me. At the end, I found myself in an existential vacuum; missing meaning in my life or as some would say a total nihilism.
Viktor believes in the importance of hope, meaning and purpose. He argues that such characteristics are a vital guide through difficult times. Having a why in your life strengthens you to bear the terrible how of your existence. In Auschwitz, he describes apathy, not hunger and not cold, as the greatest threat to survival. Those who saw no more sense in life, no aim and no desire for future plans could evidently see no point in carrying on. Those people were guaranteed a loss. Viktor describes some conversations he held with such prisoners. Their typical reply would be “What can I expect from life anymore?”.
Truth to be said, it doesn’t really matter what we expect from life, rather what life expects from us. Reading this book, I realized that no matter how many times I look for an answer to what the meaning of life is, I would never find one. Not because life has no meaning, but because I give meaning to my life. It is life asking me, every single day, what is the meaning of my life and it’s me who has the answer.
“It didn’t really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”
Not only is the meaning of life unique from one person to another, but it is unique to situations. A person’s meaning may and should evolve and happiness as well as pleasure is simply a by-product of a meaningful life. Lastly, in times of unavoidable suffering, a man must find a meaning to survive it. Such meaning is what Viktor calls: sacrifice.
“Happiness can’t be pursued; rather it must ensue.”
Viktor Frankl once asked his students whether they could guess the meaning of his own life. Surprisingly they guessed it right. The meaning of Viktor’s life was to help others find their own meaning.
Viktor Frankl, I thank you. You have succeeded in your life, not because you told me what the meaning of my life is, but rather because you told me where I can look for the answer — in myself.