Finding meaning in our lives regardless of circumstances. (Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.) October 2018

Susan's Thursday morning note October 18, 2018
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (Surgeon & WW2 Concentration Camp Survivor)
Finding meaning in our lives regardless of circumstances.

Good morning!  Stars and dawn all mixed together for a few moments to take away my breath and remind me to look to the heavens where the promise of peace always waits.  Beautiful.  Fall.  Coffee.  Life.  The mix of beauty and pain always sharing the days.  I have been rereading Man’s Search for Meaning and again find such strength in the words from this book.  This book was written by a doctor that survived several German concentration camps, where his wife and parents were all murdered.  Before the war he worked in a hospital in Vienna where he headed the neurological department and was a brain surgeon.  His main interest as a doctor was working with patients that had lost hope in life – lost a meaning for life and were prone to suicide.  Ironically, he was a Jew and was sent to concentration camps.  The first half of the book is on his experiences in the camp – on the different reactions to despair among his friends within the camp.  Because of his extensive training in suicide prevention and keeping meaning when there seems no meaning, he often is called on to encourage those completely losing their reason for trying in life (oftentimes trying to keep his own mind from despair).

The second half of the book is on man’s search for meaning – in all areas of life (not the extreme of those suffering in situations like the camps, but in everyday life of man).  What gives us meaning?  What keeps us striving for morality?  Why, among our own sufferings, or after the death of those we love, why (how) can we find true meaning in our existence?

Because of the depth of his writing I will include as much as possible without being too long to try to help any of you that will find hope in these words.

People forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.

Take the fate of the sick -especially those who are incurable.  I once read a letter written by a young invalid, in which he told a friend that he had just found out he would not live for long, that even an operation would be of no help.  He wrote further that he remembered a film he had seen in which a man was portrayed who waited for death in a courageous and dignified way. The boy had thought it a great accomplishment to meet death so well.  Now - he wrote - fate was offering him a similar chance.

"I have nothing to expect from life anymore"...What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life.  We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.  We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly.  Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.  Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. 

Rilke wrote, "How much suffering there is to get through!"  Rilke spoke of "getting through suffering" as others would talk of "getting through work."  There was plenty of suffering for us to get through.  Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum.  But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.  Only very few realized that. 

I remember two cases of would-be suicide which bore a striking similarity to each other.  Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide.  Both used the typical argument - they had nothing more to expect from life.  In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.  We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country.  For the other it was a thing, not a person.  This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which till needed to be finished.  His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child's affections.  

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love.  When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.  A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.  He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how".
When he was trying to encourage the prisoners in his bunk when he was also in a state of despair - after a day food was withheld from them for not telling on a friend that stole bread...

They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.  I said that someone looks down on each of us in different hours - a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God - and he would not expect us to disappoint him.  He would hope to find us suffering proudly - not miserably - knowing how to die. 

On Morality: Man is never driven to a moral behavior; in each instance he decides to behave morally.  Man does not do so in order to satisfy a moral drive and to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits himself, or for a person whom he loves, or for the sake of his God.  If he actually did it for the sake of having a good conscience, he would become a Pharisee and cease to be a truly moral person.  I think that even the saints did not care for anything other than simply to serve God, and I doubt that they ever had it in mind to become saints.  If that were the case, they would have become only perfectionists rather than saints.  The meaning of life always changes, but that it never ceases to be.   We can discover this meaning in life by three different ways:

  1. doing a deed
  2. by experiencing a value

            Experiencing something (work, nature, culture) or by experiencing someone (love)…by loving someone he sees that which is potential in him, that which is not yet actualized by yet ought to be actualized.  By his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities.  By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should be, he makes these potentialities come true.

  1. by suffering

            def.  Whenever one is confronted with an inescapable, unavoidable situation, whenever one has to face a fate that cannot be changed (ex. incurable disease) just then is one given a last chance to actualize the highest value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering.  (He writes on “happiness” in the culture of the US – “where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading“)  There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or to enjoy one’s life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidabity of suffering.  In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.  Life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of suffering…

A mother's reflection on caring for a crippled son for most of her life... "I wished to have children and this wish has been granted to me; one boy died, the other, however, the crippled one, would have been sent to an institution if I had not taken over his care.  Though he is crippled and helpless, he is after all my boy.  And so I have made a fuller life possible for him; I have made a better human being out of my son."  At this moment, there are tears & crying, then she continues..."As for myself, I can look back peacefully on my life; for I can say my life was full of meaning, and I have tried hard to fulfill it; I have done my best - I have done the best for my son.  My life was no failure!"  Even though her healthy son died young, she realized that life could be so rich in joy and love that it could contain more meaning that a life lasting 80 years.
Here is a link to some of Viktor Frank's quotes:  A few examples are:

    When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.
    What is to give light must endure burning.

Today.  Again our gift.  The sun has now arrived and taken off her yellow pajamas.  The sky is bright.  The flags are waving.  Children with messed hair are getting ready.  Birds are singing.  Squirrels are awakening.  Leaves fall.  Clouds keep moving.  Life continues.   The sand timer moving so quickly.  We can’t stop the sand, but we can mentally capture moments.  Gifts from heaven to help us keep an eternal perspective.  To help us realize we are here for a short time and then get to enter heaven.  To long to stay.  To long to go.  The hardness of that.  There is intense meaning no matter what is taking place in your life personally.  Find someone’s eyes to look into – someone that needs your kindness.  There is a reason for your creation – if you truly have no idea what your meaning is, then get on your knees and ask God….you will be given peace and an answer.  The pursuit of seeing his eyes in heaven look into yours with pride.  All day long I have to recharge my mind – what I think about….a constant inner decision.  So easy to snap, to lose hope, to not want to give the day our best – but it is always our decision.  Thank you for letting me enter your Thursday morning.  Have a beautiful day and continue to look to the skies – peace is promised when we look to the heavens. Susan

Latin for this week:  numquam dede or numquam trade - Never give up.

Works Cited:
Frankl, Viktor.  Man's Search for Meaning.  New York, NY.  Simon & Schuster Pocket Books.  1939.