People today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for
The title of this article was taken from a quote by the Austrian Psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl (1905 ~ 1997).
He developed the theory and practice of logotherapy, which became known as the “third school” of Viennese psychotherapy (the “first school” being that of Sigmund Freud and the second that of Alfred Adler). A survivor of the Holocaust, Frankl became widely known because of his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it he theorized that the concentration camp victims most likely to survive were those who had meaning in their lives.
According to the tenets of logotherapy, the main motivation of humanity is its search for meaning in life. Without meaning, a vacuum is created, plunging us into the relentless pursuits of money, power, fame, and sex. There is nothing inherently wrong with all the above, but unless they are subjugated to a higher purpose, their attainment leaves us feeling empty. Money, sex, and power, then, are not enough. We need meaning.
After all, the rich and powerful are not immune from suffering. How can they face it without meaning? Do not even the most powerful people die? If so, how can they courageously accept their mortality without meaning? Can our life be a source of joy if it is without meaning?
What then is meaning? It’s a personal reason for our existence. It’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It is not a matter of searching for some ethereal, profound, and mysterious meaning, but merely of choosing what to dedicate our life to, for the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. In other words, the meaning of life is to live a meaningful life. We create ourselves with the power of thought, and we create our meaning with the power of choice.
The meaning of a word is its role in a sentence, and the meaning of a person is their role in society. When we take on a role and contribute to society, we become meaningful by being useful. Our role gives us value and significance.
The world is in great need. It requires peacekeepers and bus drivers, janitors and shopkeepers, factory workers and salespeople, schoolteachers and philosophers, artists and musicians, accountants and politicians, plumbers and physicians, engineers and electricians, computer programmers and dishwashers, cooks and architects. The list is endless. No role is too small; all roles are vital, and every role is an opportunity for someone to find meaning.
It is not the nature of the role, but how we express it that fills us with purpose. Taking orders for food and serving it may be the job of a waiter, but putting people at ease, helping them make their selections, serving them courteously and promptly, and making their dining experience enjoyable is the mark of a professional, the mark of someone filled with purpose. It is this intention to serve others to the best of our ability that elevates even the simplest job into one of great dignity. It transforms a common task into an extraordinary event that touches the lives of others. So, it is not the nature of our job, but the nature of our attitude toward our job that makes our life worth living.
Is our job really that important? Buddha thought so, for he taught, “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749~1832) expressed similar sentiments when he wrote, “What is my life if I am no longer useful to others?” So, when we accept a role, we cease to be a wanderer and become a pilgrim. The simple act of dedicating ourselves to a noble purpose fills us with power. The Indian philosopher Patañjali (2nd century BC, or 5th century AD) explained this well when he taught, “When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and your discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
Some young students worry that they may never find meaning in life because they are overwhelmed by the number of occupational choices and the extent of the skills that are needed. They often are confused because they don’t know what to become. But life is not about becoming an occupation; it’s about becoming useful. It’s about serving the community. And we can do this is any number of ways. The secret, then, is not to search for an occupation to study, but to look for a way to help others. When we redirect our attention from our own needs to the needs of society, we are more apt to find our place in the world. A sincere wish to contribute to society coupled with a willingness to respond to opportunity as it strikes will lead to finding one’s purpose. All young people have to do is follow their heart, as long as it ennobles them.
Some cry, “How can we find meaning in a world of suffering?” But doesn’t suffering point to needs? Don’t needs provide an opportunity to serve? And doesn’t service give meaning? Being good isn’t good enough. We need to be good for something. What greater meaning can we find than lessening the suffering of others? It is for this reason that all religions teach compassion.
For example, the Hindu faith teaches, “What sort of religion can it be without compassion? You need to show compassion to all living beings. Compassion is the root of all religious faiths.” (Basavanna, Vachana 247) Also, Islam teaches, “All [human] creatures are God’s children, and those dearest to God are those who treat His children kindly.” (Hadith of Baihaqi)
The following story taken from the Talmud (Abot de Rabbi Nathan 6) expresses the Jewish view:
Once, as Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins. “Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”
“My son,” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6.6].”
Perhaps, if the Hindus and Muslims of Ayodhya, India burned the above teachings into their hearts, instead of burning one another alive, the world would become a better place. And what of the Palestinians and Jews? Rather than exterminating women and children of their enemies, why not extinguish the hatred in their hearts?
I don’t mean to condemn any particular group, for we are all guilty of being less than we can be. So, let’s end our search for meaning by choosing to become all that we can be. And if someone were to ask, “What on earth are you doing for Heaven’s sake?” — let our answer be, “I’m doing God’s work.”