Finding Meaning

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” (Nietzsche)

I sent the above quote to friend of mine who is suffering enormously, trying to help him in the only way I know, by giving him my support, understanding and unconditional friendship.

It took me a couple of days to write the letter to him, not knowing what to say and how to express myself. I asked myself many questions, such as: “What can we say to a person with terrible pain, both physical and mental? Are we playing the role of God by trying to heal or to rescue them? Do we have the power to heal friends with a letter of encouragement? Can we really help someone with just good and honest advice?”

I have no answers to all these questions; I am just an ordinary person who is trying to do something to alleviate my friend’s suffering. Not an easy task! I wonder what power we have, other than good will, to help someone who is suffering.

I know that logotherapy, the scientific work and legacy of Dr Viktor Frankl (1905 ~ 1997) can help us to cope with bad circumstances. Logotherapy, as indicated by its name deals with a meaning-centered psychology, and views man’s orientation toward ultimate meaning as a human phenomenon rather than anything divine.

Dr. Frankl’s method is of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most difficult ones, and thus a reason to continue living persists. He believes that life has meaning under all circumstances even the most miserable ones. Dr. Viktor Frankl, the internationally renowned psychiatrist who endured 3 years of unspeakable horror in the Nazi death camps, knows how to heal our souls and give us a reason to live. At the death camps he lost his father, mother, wife, and brother.

How could he find life worth living after suffering from hunger, cold, and brutality, while expecting to be exterminated? I knew, if anyone, HE could help with his profound compassion. The motto of logotherapy is: If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying, because suffering is only one aspect of human existence.

Could we give this statement as a pill to a patient in need of medication? Of cause not. But we are responsible for what we do, whom we love, and how we suffer. We have no obligation and no right to force anyone to do something against their will. The only thing we can do is to explain that no man can ever know what life still holds in store for him, or what magnificent hour may still await him. There is always hope, in one way or another. Hope that human life can be fulfilled not only in creating and enjoying, but also in suffering.

“Whoever has a reason for living endures almost any mode of life” says Nietzsche.

Interestingly, unconditional faith in unconditional meaning may turn complete failure into a heroic triumph, and that is a triumph of man’s power to do something under and against any circumstances. Logotherapy has proclaimed the rule that the game does not require us to win at all costs, but it does demand that we never give up the fight.

I hope I will be successful in conveying to you that despite our crumbling of traditions, life holds a meaning for each and every individual. To teach people to find meaning, that meaning must be specific and personal, a meaning which can be realized by one person alone. If we practice these principles, we will be able to help people live under all conditions!

We have just one problem here; meaning must be found; it cannot be given. People always expect and look for meaning from others, but that is wrong. There is no prescription on how to find meaning! There is no man on earth who can do it for you! With meaning in our hands, we will be able to survive the worst conditions; we can learn how from Dr. Frankl’s experience who knew that life never ceases to have a meaning. The quest for meaning has actual survival value.

“But even a man, says Dr. V. Frankl, who finds himself in the greatest distress, in which neither activity nor creativity can bring values to life, nor experience give meaning to it – even such a man can still give his life a meaning by the way he faces his fate, his distress. By taking his unavoidable suffering upon himself he may yet realize values”

Yes, in just such a way, in which a person accepts his destiny, and in his courage in suffering, he manifests his human fulfillment and meaningfulness. We need to teach ourselves not to ask what do we expect from life, but what does life expect from us. That is what we mean by the meaningfulness of life, a life with a purpose to live for.

We must accept our destiny as we accept anything else in our everyday life. No man can escape his personal destiny; destiny is part of life. One, who accepts that, has found his meaning and his way of living with courage, and the courage to suffer, too.

Once again, the exceptional therapist Dr. Viktor Frankl knows what to say: “The right kind of suffering – facing your fate without flinching – is the highest achievement that has been granted to man”. How simple and powerful this statement is! A great man, Dr. Viktor Frankl, has left us in 1997, leaving us with a powerful coping tool: logotherapy. Let us not forget him or his message!