Man’s Search for Meaning

It is a constant search, is it not? Finding meaning in life… Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning talks about his experiences in a Nazi death camp and how he came out of it. He was a psychiatrist and developed a rather fascinating theory that he called Logotherapy. Here is his basic philosophy as taken from Wikipedia…

The following list of tenets represents Frankl’s basic principles of Logotherapy:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Growing up I pondered these concepts before I even read Frankl or other philosophers on the subject of life’s meaning. There are many ways to view life. When I was young, life was mostly a big playground. As I grew up, I started developing a view of life that held little to no meaning. This is often the way many teenagers become destructive. If societal norms don’t hold much meaning for you, then what does?

This is a path all people must walk. And to the crossroads we must come. In my own life, I saw three choices.

  1. The path that really determined that all of life was meaningless and therefore it did not matter what primal desire you succumbed to.
  2. The path that determined that society held many of the answers for meaning in life and that one should follow societal norms as best one could. Mostly to fit in. And at the very least, we could pick and choose what meanings society gave us that would be best for us.
  3. The path that yet again determined that all of life was meaningless, but with the notion that one could create meaning in life.

Being a mostly good child I first “tried on” the meanings society gave me. They fit awkwardly. Like clothes that were too big, or too small, and that looked awful on me. This lead to much frustration and angst.

Next I began to walk the path of a meaningless life. Societies answers didn’t seem to fit and so nothing must work. I spiraled downward into the depths of despair, depression, and destructive behavior. I was lost…

Somehow, someway, I realized that leading a meaningless life was still meaningful, and I didn’t like what it meant! It meant being seperate from everyone and everything. It meant caring about no one and no thing. It meant that the only meaning in life was me. It meant that I was… alone…

Once again I went back to society for answers. They must be out there somewhere, right? As I mentioned in my previous article, Confessions of an Information Junkie, my lust for information grew. I studied all the world’s religions and all the world’s philosophers. Each offered a glimmer of hope. Each provided a few little gems I could hold onto. Meaning that I could integrate into my life. I gained a lot of youthful swagger and pride. I knew the answers. I had the world’s cheat sheet. I came to believe I had it all figured out!

Life sure has a way of keeping you in balance though. Not long after I encountered a number of setbacks and disappointments in life. Where was my happiness and contentment I thought I had acheived? Where was my meaning and hope? Washed away like sand on a seashore…

At this point I must tell you that I have always believed in the idea that life must have some sort of purpose. Maybe our only purpose is existence itself. But its hard for me to believe that we exist without a purpose. There must be a reason we are intelligent beings who can even think this way so as to have these thoughts and these conversations.

I believe there is a higher power who set this all in motion for some purpose. And I believe that purpose is good. I also believe that life is meaningless until we assign meaning to it…

Can society help direct you? I believe in some limited cases it can.

Can life itself help direct you? I know it can. Yet, people can interpret the same life event two totally different ways!

And I think that is the point. Life is what we make of it. The most awesome and scariest thing about life is that you get to decide what it means to you and for you. Within a limited scope you get to decide everything. What work you do, who you marry, if you marry, who your friends are, where you live, how you will react to life events, and the list goes on. Sure, we can’t change our parents, our genetic makeup, our place of birth, our culture, or our upbringing…

To a certain degree we can’t change who we are, but we can change who we become…

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Viktor Frankl

I’ll leave you with those thoughts to ponder… Here is to your freedom and growth! 😉

The ideas presented here have some obvious implications when it comes to talking about education. I will touch on a few more points this week and then begin my weeklong series on education next week. Please subscribe using the link below so you won’t miss a thing…

12 thoughts on “Man’s Search for Meaning”

  1. If you read Frankl’s book, you will also notice that his Logotherapy includes the philosophical idea many philosophers have called “non-being.”

    Essentially, our brains tell us to keep searching for shortcuts and our desire to control the outcome of events.

    Non-being is the antithesis of this desire to control.

    For example, when Frankl returned from the concentration camps and his psychotherapy practice, he gives an example of a patient suffering from insomnia. Frankl suggested that the patient’s “hyper-intentional” desire to control his sleep is keeping him awake; therefore, Frankl recommended that the patient not try to fall asleep but instead try to stay awake. Eventually, the focus of trying to stay awake would remove the anxiety of falling asleep and the insomnia would be “cured.”

    In my humble opinion, once we stop trying to “be somebody” or “be something,” our true selves emerge and we become comfortable and content with being “nobody.”

    Thanks for provoking thought this morning…

  2. @ Daphne – Thanks for the Stumble!

    @ Kent – Many people have put forth the idea that contentment lies in restraining ones desires. (It’s a strong Buddhist idea) Especially the desire for control. And the idea is mostly right. I believe in a path I would define as “realism”. Don’t get rid of all desire for control. But have a realistic idea of what you can and can not control.

    Most of our control is not in external events but in how we react and respond to them. It’s always amazing to see how two people in the same event react differently. Or how people make lemonade out of lemons.

    I think I agree with your last statement, but I wanna make sure I have you right. When you say “be somebody”, “be something”, be “nobody”, I think you are referring to external labels given to us by society. You are right. I don’t really care if society thinks I am a “nobody”, but I do care if certain individuals think I am a “nobody”. Everybody has got to be somebody to someone, right?

    I think perhaps the better way to say this is that we should stop striving to be someone we are not. We must become more of who we are, not less. More of who we were created to be.


    Jeremy Day’s last blog post..Confessions of an Information Junkie

  3. Jeremy:

    I completely agree with your response to my comment and your assumptions of my thoughts are correct.

    I will also add that “restraining desires” can also paradoxically become an attempt to control. In other words, one should not exchange the desire to control external events with the desire to control internal events.

    After all, emotion and the senses are the source of some the greatest pleasures in life.

    Also, yes, my usage of the phrase, “be somebody,” infers the act of being something that we are not — of following social conventions for lack of self-acquaintance or self-direction.

    To “be nobody” is to remove pretense and the masks that we wear for others…

  4. Hello Jeremy,

    This is a very deep subject which you have expressed very sincerely.

    I can relate to the dress codes while growing up.All I wanted to do is be allowed to wear jeans and hang out with my friends.My parents had different ideas.They taught me structure and the importance of taking responsibly of your own actions in an encouraging way.Always do your best,was what they asked.

    Later on,my fiance gave me similar advice with a business venture.He told me to listen to my tummy and my head would know what to do.So go with your gut feeling.

    From this-
    I have become aware that I would much rather be different then just one of the girls.

    Clothes don’t make the person and the mind is an incredible gift to waste.

    Then story of Viktor Frankl is very inspiring.To have survived that time,yes,he did have work assigned to him from a higher power.

    This also reminds me of Wiadslaw Szpilman and Irena Sendlerowa.

    I enjoyed this article very much,Jeremy.

    Bunny got Blog’s last blog post..Socialization, Charisma, And The Career Girl

  5. “Being a mostly good child I first “tried on” the meanings society gave me. They fit awkwardly. Like clothes that were too big, or too small, and that looked awful on me. This lead to much frustration and angst.”

    No. Kidding. I definitely understand where you were coming from on this.

    Hayden Tompkins’s last blog post..How I bought $160 of Groceries for $62

  6. Hi Jeremy – It’s so true what you said, “Life is what we make of it.” That’s actually a powerful statement. When we realize we CAN change our lives, amazing things begin to happen Too often people will say “that’s just the way it is”, but if we dig deeper and add a little bit of tenacity, that which we thought was impossible, becomes possible.

    What a great, and thought provoking post to start the new year with.

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Stick – Stickier – Stuck, How To Overcome Writer’s Block

  7. Hi Jeremy,

    This felt like a post I would have written – I can totally relate. It took me a while to accept the fact that it is okay if my meaning in life is different from what society thinks my meaning of life should be ….

    I find great joy in learning and growing – and that keeps me going …. life is brought out best when life brings out the best in me …. nothing is too profound or too shallow.

    I really enjoyed the flow in the post!

    Maya’s last blog post..Preparing to Believe in Yourself: The Science of Ditchiness

  8. Jeremy,
    Very nice writing today and on a difficult subject to often convey you are very clear. I have studied Frankl’s work in school and I like your summations better and they make more sense to my life. I have a daughter with a lesion in her brain blocking longterm memory recall – to teach her moral values and outcomes has truly been a challenge and rocked my philosophy of what was important to gaining meaning. Every 2 weeks something new!

    I like the TS Elliot quote that starts “to be yourself when all others are called in different directions…(paraphrasing) it is the hardest thing to do. But when we can collaborate from all different directions – wow that is powerful

    meaning keeps changing for me built on my foundation from my genetic pool and life circumstances…I notice many over 60 year old women are changing their names as they find a new self? Just an observation

    Nice post Thank you

    Patricia’s last blog post..The Interstate is Closed

  9. @ Patricia – Thank you. I am glad my writing came across as clear. And I am sorry to hear about your daughter. I can only imagine how tough that would be.

    @ Maya – To each their own, right? Im glad you said my post had “flow”. Must mean my writing is getting better! 😉

    @ Barbara – Glad you liked it! Yes, we CAN change if we want to.

    @ Hayden – I think this sounds familiar to a LOT of people!

    @ Bunny – I am glad you enjoyed it. As a very logical person I am learning to follow my gut more and more. My brain and my gut do battle it out though. The brain is used to being the top dog. 😉

    @ Kent – There really are a lot of funny paradoxical things in life and that is certainly one of them. Once again I like your word usage and it has gotten me thinking alot about the word control. Maybe Ill have a post on this in the coming weeks…


  10. Pingback: On the Importance of Being Part of a Group | Insight Writer

  11. Pingback: Giving Thanks | Insight Writer

Comments are closed.