I doubt whether a doctor [Frankl was a psychotherapist] can answer this question in general terms. For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
...Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Rediscovering this book means a lot to me. I am weary of fiction and film and personal conversations doing their best to persuade me of life’s meaninglessness. I’m tired of cynicism, irony, satire and kitschy nostalgia. A sense of humor is indispensable, but I can do with a bare minimum of ridicule.
As for the Big Question, the one that begins to plague us in adolescence, the Meaning of Life—. If death renders life meaningless, then, since we will all die, life has no meaning for anyone. But if temporary life has no meaning, neither would endless life, since nothing qualitative would have been added. So that line of inquiry heads nowhere.
Frankl turns the question on its head: It is not for us to question life but life that continually questions us. What will you do? How will you respond? Where are you going? I find refreshing Frankl’s denial that meaning can be found only within oneself. No, he says, it is the opposite, and “self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.”
Meaning is in the ways we respond to what life hands us. No one can give it to anyone else in a sentence. Really, how else would you have arranged the world?