Before reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, many of us may have already pondered the question of what the meaning of life essentially is. While reading Frankl’s piece, some of us may have come up with additional questions of our own, disagreeing with Frankl’s view; others, may agree with him and feel a sense of relief after reading his thoughts. After all, Frankl was a psychiatrist, with a past that gave him experiences that he could reflect on through his work. However, some may credit Frankl’s work and his philosophy of logotherapy as it allows for an open discussion on existential crisis, yet still argue that there is no meaning to life after all. How can you define life? Is life worth cherishing without a proper definition? Without a real purpose? How can you think of life as worth preserving if you have truly endured suffering?
I invoke Man’s Search for Meaning to present my ideas on this topic effectively. I will analyze the concept of human understanding in reference to Frankl’s theory that people can find purpose in life, even in suffering and dying. People, including myself, may find this to be debatable. I discuss why it is that we refuse to accept this and continue seeking a clear answer to what the meaning of life is. I question whether we assign our own meanings to life, as individuals, to cope with the unknown since we have yet to universally agree on an answer. Further, I discuss the possibility of how it may actually be liberating to think that there is no purpose at all, in contrast to Frankl’s ideas.
Viktor Frankl lived through the Holocaust as a prisoner staying in concentration camps, losing his loved ones, and enduring torture, starvation, and much worse. In regards to the topic of whether life is worth preserving when you are suffering, Frankl’s ability to fight through his horrific experiences and continue with his life, tells us a lot about his character and his beliefs. He has seen some of what can be considered the worst the world has to offer. We can assume at this point of the book that Frankl is, at the very least, an optimist. His family was killed by the same circumstances he was exposed to, the same circumstances in which he, too, could have lost his own life. This assumption is proven to be true when Frankl recalls on a time when his optimism took over his thoughts:
Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism (which has often controlled my feelings even in the most desperate situations) clung to this thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favourable position. (20)
We can see how optimism often clouded Frankl’s thoughts. It was the possibility that perhaps things would be okay. I use the term clouded when describing Frankl’s experience with optimism during this time because he was unable to accept what was happening to him, whether it’s because he just couldn’t fathom it, or if he truly felt that there was something to look forward to. Apart from his optimism in what his future held, Frankl was a firm believer in there being purpose in life, even when suffering or dying. Though many of us refuse to believe this. For the most part of this argument, I approach it without taking religious beliefs into consideration, completely disregarding the concept of the afterlife. However, I would like to mention that the thought of there being a “hell” is hard to believe when places and incidents taking place on Earth seem to fall under the definition of a “hell hole.” I would like to use this as an example. The concept of “hell” is used to instill fear in people, it is seen as somewhere you don’t want to end up, and the reason why you should take any steps necessary to repent sins or stop yourself from committing them in the first place. However, in this case, was the Holocaust not like hell on Earth? Weren’t people, innocent people, targeted, severely abused, starved, murdered, and essentially deprived from everything good in the world? I make this comparison as I find it hard to believe that there is a purpose behind this suffering. I do not wish to negate Frankl’s experiences and views, but I believe that this is the answer to why we continue questioning our own existence. Much of it is to do with the fact that it seems impossible that the suffering is worth something in the end.
How do you deal with the sudden realization that life does not matter? To clarify, that you are not aware of its real meaning and so, essentially, it does not seem to matter. You’re born, you live life in survival mode, and then you die. Some may get defensive in response to this and mention getting married, having children, or starting your career. But does any of that really matter in the end, or are they just things we do to pass time, because, really, there is not much else to do. Though I must admit that we are all guilty of doing so, that is, assigning our own meanings to life to cope with the unknown. It is not necessarily a bad thing. We have been reproducing since the beginning of time, it’s the process of life, and we’ve accepted this. However, we’ve also molded this into the ideal situation. A lot of different cultures promote starting a family, it’s what’s considered the norm. Buying your first broken-down car, and then setting a goal to buy an expensive sportscar a few years down the road is often included in the meaning of life for a lot of people. It’s the concept of getting ahead and accomplishing something. Frankl’s idea of everyone having their own purpose in life and having to find it on their own is similar to this. In the end, we are only assigning purpose and meaning to our life on the basis of what society, the culture, and our environment tells us. We can argue that you find your purpose when something sparks joy in you, but even that, is a result of what you have been exposed to for so many years. It’s scary thinking of these things as meaningless, which is why I feel that many result to creating their own meanings. I don’t wish to sound morbid, but it’s an interesting thought, is an athlete’s purpose in life to train hard and excel in his or her sport?
The timing in which I read Man’s Search for Meaning is strange. About a week prior to reading it, I became “aware,” as I like to call it. It was the sudden realization that life does not matter and it does not seem to have meaning. You do good things and you do some bad, yet, even that is based on morals, something we’ve made up over the years- and still something we don’t all agree on. We all end up at the same place in the end. The other morning, I woke up and as I began brushing my teeth, the idea that life does not matter weighed heavy on my mind. I almost felt a headache coming on. I have to admit, I feel guilty when I think like this, because life is so precious to many. I find it unfair to those who lost their lives in unfortunate events and those who have suffered and survived through horrible situations and keep a positive attitude. However, the thought lingers. I could not give up on life though, despite thinking like this. So, I suppose life has offered me enough for me to want to keep going. To add to this, it feels almost liberating realizing that nothing matters. I did not curl up in bed and overthink like I thought I would have. I felt a sense of relief after coming to this realization. In the very end, my embarrassing moments mean nothing, my sudden change in career paths is not that big of a deal, and my past is simply the past. I feel that many people are scared of admitting that they find liberation in realizing that life may not have meaning after all. Or they fear accepting the fact in the first place. At one point in the book, Frankl refers to acknowledging victories and looking at situations in a positive light:
Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners. (72)
I find this quote to be particularly interesting. It serves as an example for my argument in which I state that we assign our own meanings to life; we work hard to try and enhance our lives, and we celebrate the little things. Acknowledging that we do so is not wrong.
In closing, I want to clarify that as a young individual, I believe I hold a good amount of potential in order to live life how I want to. I still hope to accomplish the goals I’ve set for myself, and I’ll continue seeking joy through good food, materialistic things, non-materialistic things, concepts, ideas, processes, and whatever else. At this point in my life, having had the moment of sudden awareness, I recognize that I am constantly assigning my own meanings to life, but I also accept that this is the only way of living life that I am familiar with. Like many others, I will continue questioning the meaning of life, through the hard times, through suffering, and through the periods of reflection. However, unlike Frankl’s definition of a pessimist who “resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day,” (110) I hope to be the optimist. The individual ‘who attacks the problems of life actively.”