At that moment when a person starts to seriously ponder the meaning and value of life, you can consider him a madman.
This post is titled after a book by Victor Frankl. And below the title is a quote from Sigmund Freud. One can see that Frankl’s position regarding the meaning of life is antipodal to Freud’s.
Frankl’s position on the matter is actually the opposite of that of most modern books about happiness and life in the New Age spirit and also that of the currently popular positive psychology. For they claim that the path to happiness lies in positive emotions and positive thinking. If these are not present, then they need to be faked; one needs to try to do this until they finally become real (what is known as “fake it until you make it”).
Frankl considers this stance to be absolutely wrong. Happiness, success, positive thinking – in his mind these are by-products of the right sense of the meaning of life.
Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you; but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
It is the same with self-realization:
The concept that is called self-realization should be the main goal of a person’s life for a simple reason – the more one pursues it, the more it can be missed. In other words, self-realization is possible as a side effect of ‘going beyond own limits’.
Frankl survived the German concentration camps (while his wife and his parents died in a camp). He wrote a book about this experience called Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl is often misinterpreted, especially when his quotes are pulled from their context. For example, he is often quoted as saying that those who survived in the camps were those who had some kind of goal that they saw in their future.
In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.
A direct interpretation of this quote is of course incorrect, and Frankl, who had himself been in a concentration camp, understood this very well. Here are some more of his words that are quoted much less frequently:
Only those prisoners could keep alive who… had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves.
What Frankl in fact meant was that in the most inhuman conditions, the presence of the purpose and meaning of one’s life gives a person support, allows him/her not to slip into depression and thoughts about suicide.
As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal…
Or, according to his favorite quote from Nietzsche:
Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.
And staying alive was not the main goal for Frankl, but only a secondary one. Staying alive is viewed as a means to demonstrate the power of the spirit and its triumph over circumstance.
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.
It is true that only a few people are capable of reaching such high moral standards. Of the prisoners only a few kept their full inner liberty and obtained those values which their suffering afforded, but even one such example is sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate. Such men are not only in concentration camps. Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering.
If happiness is a byproduct of living with meaning, the question arises – how do we learn to live with meaning? Frankl gives a clear answer.
[The meaning in life should be discovered, but it cannot be created] … 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.
The alternative –
Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.
Nothing to add…