Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl helped to confirm for me that my life truly has meaning, yet that meaning holds a great many questions for me still.
As I read the account of Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps I became quickly self-aware of my own history, my personal experience and upbringing. Here I am, an American born citizen, raised in the back half of the twentieth century with all the indulgences and trappings of middle class, reading an account of a man who suffered extreme injustice, torment, and suffering yet through it was able to find meaning in his life. My first inclination was to wonder if the account would serve to justify the importance of suffering as a means of enabling a person to see one’s purpose, a notion no doubt fueled by the specific brand of Judeo-Christian religious upbringing of my childhood.
As I continued through the book I became aware that Frankl was not insisting that one had to suffer to find meaning in life. In all honesty I was quite relieved to hear him say that not only was suffering not necessary, but the meaningful thing would be to remove any suffering that is avoidable. He had also made sure to illustrate that suffering did not guarantee enlightenment, as he had witness a great number of prisoners become “the plaything of circumstance” (66), only to end up discarding value in all things that did not serve immediate survival and self preservation above all else. Yet I felt compelled to wonder, had I been subjected to the brutalizing and torture of imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp would I have preserved my humanity? Would I have surrendered and compromised my integrity and freedom?
I am aware it is futile to speculate on what choices I would make if I were in the same situation, yet I hope that I would have the wherewithal to hold onto my humanity but at the same time I fear that there is a compulsion within me that would cause me to compromise it, one that I cannot readily recognize from this current vantage point. Even if I could it would not guarantee I would be any better prepared to deal with such extreme circumstances of survival until I am directly confronted with it.
Why was I comparing my own experiences to Frankl’s? His experiences and the resulting development of logotherapy enabled him to help people find meaning in their lives which led to remarkable cases of healing (Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”). Why was I having trouble shaking the notion that being of service to humanity did not require a foundation of profound experiences that reached into the extreme spectrum of human experiences? That notion indicates that I must equate meaning in my life as being implicitly tied to service to others. To even entertain that thought in the first place implies that I question the degree of service I have provided or are providing my fellow human being.
I find I have fallen into a persistent trap that has echoed through my life, comparing the success or worthiness or meaning of my life to that of another. I appreciate Frankl’s advice against this as “everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life… [whose] task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” (109) Simply, my life has meaning by virtue of having life bestowed upon me. Thus the purpose and meaning of my life must be contingent on the creamy middle of suburban rearing, of a middle class American. There must be something inherently unique that can only be offered to the world from this set of experiences.
As I read Man’s Search for Meaning I looked for how I could employ the information within to help others who are unable to find meaning in their lives, just as I looked for answers from As a Man Thinketh that I could share with people to help them understand how they can be masters of their destinies through right thinking. It’s as if I am looking for the perfect antidote coated in the perfect reply in the event I am asked by another “How can I improve my life?” or “What is my life purpose?”. If I am to be of service to others, am I not supposed to have these answers at the ready? And in the event I am not sought out and selected to answer these questions by those who seek the answers is it because I am not living in such a way that indicates that I have found meaning and purpose in my own life? Am I not asked because I do not appear qualified to answer?
These are the questions that come to me as I read Allen’s work followed by Frankl’s. It is a question that has been one of contention when propped against a belief that I do my best to live by: I am the minister of myself. We are each the minister of ourselves. Our best source of guidance is the inner voice within, the silence through which the soul is heard, through which Source speaks. We can seek guidance from outside ourselves, but if everything outside of ourselves is merely a reflection of our internal landscapes would we not do best to merely cut to the chase and drink straight from the well, rather than from the bucket that has been carted for miles which may have become contaminated or had its contents spilled along the way?
If I begin to proselytize am I not embracing the entitlement of all others to their own journeys, lessons, and experiences? Am I guiding and advising from a vantage point so unique it cannot possibly apply to any other individual in his or her own uniqueness? Do I simply serve as a beacon, an example of the expression of meaning within one’s own life recreated and rediscovered or do I take the light of my candle and deliberately seek out those who are holding out their unlit wicks? It is within this question, this seeking, where I look to draw the meaning and purpose of my life. As I come upon my personal talents and gifts, joys and creative expressions it is my challenge to learn to allow them to simply be in full trust of the Divine versus diligently and fervently applying them until my path opens before me with utmost clarity. Perhaps it is a balance that is perpetually adjusted, that is always in a dynamic state of flux.
Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning [Kindle edition]. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006.