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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Viktor E. Frankl: On the “Meaning of Life”


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?

4 comments:

Gerry said...

I read “self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence" and thought, "Exactly. It's not all about you, Gerry!" That's the lesson we start learning in adolescence and keep relearning until we get it, if we ever do. At least that's what I think I have begun to perceive, dimly. We're part of it all, but we aren't the center of it all. Takes some of the pressure off.

P. J. Grath said...

I’m glad you liked it, Gerry. Frankl thought Freudian psychoanalysis kept people from learning this lesson. I wonder what he would think of movements since then in the "cult of self." You, by the way, do not seem at all like a self-absorbed navel-gazer—rather, someone who is very other-regarding and very involved, in positive, nurturing ways, with people around you.

flandrumhill said...

The meaning of life is more easily found when focusing on 'the other.' All else is a chasing after wind.

It's been a long time since I first read 'Man's Search for Meaning.' One of my sons read it recently and I thought then that I should read it again. Your post has reminded me again to do so.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Amy-Lynn. Good to see you. Frankl's idea of meaning coming from outside and beyond ourselves includes other people, nature and also our projects. One of the reasons he had for trying so hard to survive the concentration camps was so he could rewrite his book, the manuscript having been taken from him and destroyed. His thinking seems such a healthy antidote to the focus on "me" and money.