One of the books on my summer reading list this year is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Reading about the experiences of a concentration camp survivor might be considered rather harsh summer fare, but I have repeatedly heard people talk about the inspirational power of this book. I agree — and I recommend it to you as well.
Frankl’s perspective is that of a psychiatrist who experienced the horrors of both Auschwitz and Dachau. Rather than focusing on the details of those horrors, however, he concentrates more on the psychological effect they had on the inmates. I’d like to share one particular passage with you that has given me food for thought:
“An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment … namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
For most of us, our sense of meaning is wrapped up in either creation or enjoyment. Are we making something, building up a business, raising children, creating a beautiful home, working for political or social causes? In the West, a focus on creation is given the highest emphasis and esteem.
Or, alternatively, are we focused more on enjoying art, music, entertainment, food, and our leisure time? For most people, enjoyment is seen as a side pursuit or enviable luxury. Indeed, when life becomes limited simply to the pursuit of enjoyment, many people begin to feel an inner sense of meaninglessness. I must admit that I am prone to this! In fact, it was important for me to hear Frankl’s view that the pursuit of enjoyment, in itself, can provide worthwhile meaning to life.
Even deeper, however, is the realization that life’s inevitable sufferings, be they disease or loss or hurt feelings, can provide an avenue for meaning. We don’t need to experience a concentration camp to be provided the meaning-inducing power of life’s sufferings. But knowing that meaning can be found even in such an environment — one devoid of the possibility of creation or the pursuit of enjoyment — is quite profound. As Frankl describes, even as all trappings of their former existence disappeared to be replaced by unending degradation, starvation, and brutality, some people experienced inner growth and a deepening of their inner spiritual life. This is so heartening to hear. Not all people were reduced to a brutal consciousness.
Returning to a much more mundane subject, I recently attended my 45th high school reunion. It was fun and joyful to talk to some old friends and acquaintances and even people I didn’t know (I was in a high school class of 1000 — one couldn’t know them all!), but inevitably, memories of rejection by peers and losses I experienced in high school also came up for me. In fact, the reunion left me feeling somewhat morose for a couple of days. However, upon reflection, I realized that the rejections and losses of my youth comprised the very impetus that steered me toward creating a new self, a new sense of being that had nothing to do with high school or my family or my hometown. My teenage sufferings ended up liberating me to become the person I am today.
I am grateful that, most likely, none of you reading this article will ever experience the horrors of Frankl’s life in a concentration camp. But however major or minor your life’s sufferings may be, each of us has a choice about how we respond to them. Do we ultimately find some kind of growth or courage or inner awareness as a result?
How you use your life’s experiences is up to you. You may create, you may enjoy, and you may grow — even through suffering. It is all of these choices that can give your life meaning.