Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl endured five months as a slave laborer at Auschwitz towards the end of the war. In his powerful classic based on that experience, Man’s Search for Meaning, he stresses how a prisoner’s sense of purpose and meaning helped improve the long odds against survival. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold … and became subject to mental and physical decay.” One prisoner gained endurance by focusing on the child waiting for him in another country, another on the book he wanted to complete.
Such purposes gave meaning to the lives of the weakened prisoners. About the meaning of life in general, Frankl dismisses the common tendency to provide one big answer to the big question. “Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual.” Sometimes a person must take action in some form, sometimes he must contemplate, sometimes he must care for another person, sometimes—as at Auschwitz—he must endure suffering.
Frankl’s emphasis on life’s concrete tasks as the meaning of life startled me. His words made me look again at my own “sweeping statement”–that meaning is anchored in the drive of living things over 3.8 billion years to survive and thrive and that humans are always working out those purposes in one way or another. Is that too general? What does “thriving” consist of? How real is physical survival as a goal to those of us who can comfortably afford to meet all our basic needs?
But I’ve come to think, wishfully perhaps, that Frankl’s view and my own are not so incompatible. Frankl’s concrete tasks are not too different from the particular ways I see people carrying out their biologically rooted mission of fulfillment and self-perpetuation—through children, through writing books or blogs, through their jobs–while always alert to threats to their physical safety, food, and shelter.
Frankl at one point dramatizes his message by switching the point of view. About the prisoners, he writes, “It did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected from us [italics in the original]. 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.” By personifying life, Frankl briefly compromises his point that life is concrete.
But he does so to good purpose. Saying that prisoners and readers are “Being questioned by life” is a good device for getting us outside ourselves in order to see more easily the meanings embedded in our ordinary activities. And at the same time, the figure of speech is an acknowledgement that we are part of something larger, which is always a requirement for a sense of meaning, whether the something larger is God or Frankl’s “Life” or the evolution of living things.