Questioning the Meaning of Life
Aristotle says, “All men [human beings] by nature desire to know.” Humans are, by nature, inquisitive. For example, a child most often asks “Why?” Questioning is a distinctive human trait, which separates human beings from the rest of the animal world. After all, animals do not ask questions; only humans do.
Human creatures, sooner or later, question the meaning of life. For example, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl recalls a conversation he had with 25 year old male patient. In his recurrent dream, he keeps searching for meaning but not finding it, thus concluding that life is meaningless.1
Searching for Meaning Presupposes Finding It
Frankl urges his patient not to despair, because his will to meaning presupposes that life really has meaning. Frankl then quotes the Austrian poet and novelist Franz Werfel: “Thirst is the surest proof for the existence of water.”1 Frankl explains what Werfel means: “[H]ow could a man experience thirst unless water were in the world.”2 In other words, thirst points to a reality, the existence, of water. Likewise, a person’s search for meaning points to the reality of meaning; that is, there really is meaning in life.
The Problem of Seeking and Not Finding Meaning
However, a skeptic may object to Frankl’s teaching, saying, “A person may miss the object of his or her search.” For example, a thirsty person may search for water but not find it, thus dying from dehydration. Hence, a person may search for meaning but not find it.
Granted, one may miss the object of one’s search for meaning. But it does not follow that life has no meaning. A thirsty person who searches for water may die from dehydration. But that does not prove water does not really exist. It only proves that the person did not find water in the area where he or she searched for it. Similarly, some people may search for meaning and not find it. The former may die of thirst; the latter may suffer from the “existential vacuum,” an inner emptiness that longs to be filled. Frankl is teaching that meaning is just as real as water. The difference is that water is a material reality, while meaning is a spiritual (noological) reality.
Patience in the Pursuit of Meaning
At times, the search for meaning may be elusive. A person may even be disappointed as a result of searching for it. One of the tragedies of life is giving up, precisely before the moment of actually finding the object of his or her searching. The refrain from a song by the Rock band U2 summarizes the modern person’s search for meaning: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Frankl’s advice to the person questioning the meaning of life but not yet finding an answer to it — especially today’s high school, college and university student — is
“[T]he courage to question should be matched by patience. People should be patient enough to wait until, sooner or later, meaning dawns on them. This is what they should do, rather than taking their lives – or taking refuge in drugs.”3
1. Franz Werfel, quoted in Viktor E. Frankl, The Will of Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), p. 95.
3. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 134.