In his Preface to the 1984 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, explained why he wrote his book:
“I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I though it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”
Despair is the temptation, even an overwhelming feeling, when physical or emotional suffering becomes too severe, to give up on life, to doubt its meaning, even, at times to prefer death to life. The way out of despair, though, is not a feeling but a choice, a conscious decision, to believe that life has meaning, despite its hardships and sufferings; that tragedy can be transmuted by choosing to turn it into a triumph.
I have experienced despair. I have tasted its bitter herbs and, in their place, I have decided to “feed on” faith, hope and love, and to seek a Higher Power, a belief in God, for the strength to face life and its vicissitudes.
[D]ust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19b, KJV). Quite often, a human being, “intoxicated” by a false notion of bodily immortality, needs to be reminded of the fact that he or she is a creature or created being, and, as such, will die. Thus, Yahweh, the Lord, declares through the prophet Isaiah,
“A voice says, ‘Cry out’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever'” (Isaiah 40:6-8, NIV).
Why, then, O human being, do you succumb to the vice of arrogance, being filled with pride by your wealth, fame and power? Without God, O earth-bound creature,
You are a flower that shrivels, a mist that vanishes, a breath that expires; grass that withers, beauty that fades, water that evaporates and strength that dwindles.
Apart from your Creator’s eternal, immortal, life-giving power,
You rise up, only to be brought down; increase, only to decrease; begin, only to end and live, only to die, with your body turning to dust and ashes.
All human glory fades; therefore, O finite, dependent, human creature, walk humbly before God, with an awareness of your mortality and need for immortality from your Creator, for everything that is not God is death.
At birth, human beings inhabit a “wounded” or damaged world. Humans themselves are also wounded, finite creatures, limited by their natural imperfections. Since imperfect humans live in an imperfect world, it cannot always be changed, despite all the advances of science.
If science had a solution for every human problem, could fix everything that is wrong with the world, heal ever kind of disease and prevent death itself, then science itself would take on a savior-like or divine-like status, virtually making it into God. However, since science can neither cure every disease nor conquer death itself, then science is neither God nor Savior of humankind.
Therefore, in an imperfect world with human imperfections, it is not always possible for every condition to be changed; nor for all diseases to be healed. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes,
“Caught in a hopeless situation as its helpless victim, facing a fate that cannot be changed, man still may turn his predicament into an achievement and accomplishment at the human level. He thus may bear witness to the human potential at its best, which is to turn tragedy into triumph.”1
Challenged by Life to Change Oneself
Sometimes, perhaps many times, a person “overcomes” a difficulty or problem only by enduring it. In Frankl’s words,
“Facing a fate we cannot change, we are called upon to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves, in a word, by changing ourselves.”2
That is to say, if a person’s problem cannot be changed, after exhausting all possible attempts to change it, then he or she must change his or her attitude toward it and, thereby, become better, that is, a changed person.
Rethinking the Notion of a “Victorious” Life
The “cure,” then, for an incurable disease may be living with it, enduring it. Coping with the problem, having the right kind of attitude toward it, is, in a way, the “victory” over it.
Of course, when life’s problems or difficulties can be changed, they should be. In short, when things change for the worse, a person is challenged to respond to them by making a change for the better in his or her life.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press/ Pocket Books/ Simon and Schuster, Inc., English ed.1975, 1st Washington Square Press printing 1985), pp. 125-126.
2. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 142.
While quoting statistics about suicide in teaching a course on medical ethics, my nursing students asked me to move from the abstract to the concrete, from general data to a concrete, specific example of the social effects of suicide. The following letter is one such example, revealing just how much a loved one’s suicide can hurt others, even possibly “wounding” them for life. For example, “Rachel” (whose real name has been disguised) was hurt emotionally and saw a therapist, because her husband “Mark” (whose real name has been disguised) ended his life. To express her deep pain and help her heal, the therapist had Rachel write Mark a letter, which reads, in part:
How could someone I know so well deceive me? Your note said, ‘I’m sorry, I am not well, I’m no good.’ This is what you left for a legacy for your loving wife of thirty-five years and three beautiful children who respected, adored, and loved you, a big brother who called you his best friend, and so many others I couldn’t begin to count. All the good you did in your life is now shadowed by the way you ended your life.
None of us understands what happened to the faith you had in the Lord. As your wife, I want you to know that I feel you threw away my love. I have no sense of belonging. I have no one. You have left me empty, with no desire to do anything but mourn and grieve. I have literally lost all the hair on my head due to the trauma and shock. I have been constantly sick because the stress has torn down my immune system. I have horrible nightmares and flashbacks of your body lying in a pool of blood, and I can’t sleep much of the time. I don’t cook and have no desire to eat. You have broken my heart and my spirit.
I want you to know that our first born was married almost a year ago, and it was so painful to sit in that first row without you. It was so horrible watching your son give his sister. The most important day in a young woman’s life and our beautiful daughter had to endure the pain of not having you there to hold her hand and give her hugs and encouragement. Your only son has been so brave and has given up his career as a basket ball coach just to be closer to our family. You had so much love and compassion for each of your children why did you do this to them? Our youngest daughter just graduated from college. It was so lonely watching her walk across the stage. I needed you to share this wonderful time in her life. I was angry and I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, ‘Why did you do this to your family?’
You gave us no warning. You hid your plan so well. I am shocked by your deceit. You knew that I would be the one to shoulder the burden of finding your body. It doesn’t make sense. Didn’t you know I and the children would suffer this tremendous pain and emptiness?
I am angry because you lied Pastor John and the psychiatrist asked you if you had considered suicide. Your response, ‘I thought of it but I would never do that to my family,’ made me trust in you. You lied and deceived all of us. I have forgiven you, Mark. I will end this letter by saying: ‘You were the love of my life as well as the greatest disappointment in my life.’
Your grieving wife,
There are many reasons for a person to stay alive, but there is no good reason for him or her to end his or her life, not even in a state of depression and despair, which can often be treated with psychotherapy and medication. The letter above is another good reason for a person to stay alive; and, in particular, to live for others, finding meaning in being loved and loving family, friends and other kinds of social relationships. As psychiatrist Viktor Frankl teaches, just as the clouds may hide the sun from shining, the sun, nevertheless, is still shining. Objectively, the sun still exists; it is really there. Likewise, meaning still exists; objectively, it is still there. Life is really worth living, even when the dark “clouds” of depression and despair may — at the moment or for a while — block a person from “seeing” or perceiving life’s meaning.
If you know someone in crisis, I suggest calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I have quoted excerpts of Rachel’s letter in the form of a complete letter. For the original letter in its entirety, see Gary P. Stewart, “Suicide’s Companion: A Trail of Tears,” in Suicide: A Christian Response – Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life, eds. Timothy J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart (Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel Publications, 1998), pp. 430, 431, 432, 433. Italics are mine.
It is both a religious truth and fact of human experience that love gives meaning to life! However, many people suffer from love-deprivation, which is living without giving and receiving love. Being without it is one of the greatest tragedies in life. Persons deprived of love experience a loss of meaning and, therefore, cannot really experience human fulfillment or happiness. Pope John Paul II rightly observes,
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
In other words, human beings do not really live, rather they merely exist, without love. The tragedy about that is stones, trees and houses exist, but humans are meant to live and they do that, making their lives complete, by experiencing love.
Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, discovers that love givev meaning to life, while imagining his wife’s beauty in the very midst of suffering in a concentration camp. He writes,
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Therefore, the greatest virtue, that which makes life worth living, is love. In the words of Scripture, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NIV).
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp. 48-49.
Listening to the Speaker without Interrupting Him or Her
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV).
When two persons are communicating, one person should be be ready and willing to listen while the other speaks, not interrupting him or her. After all, how can an understanding of the speaker be reached, when he or she is constantly being interrupted? First, then, listen to the speaker with the intention of understanding him or her.
Replying without Inflammatory, Personal Attacks of the Person’s Character
A person should be “slow to speak.” The reason is that it often takes time to understand what it being said, to process it mentally, and to select the right words to reply to the speaker. Then — and only then — after an understanding has been reached, the person may respond the speaker. Speak the truth, but speak it “in love” (Ephesians 4:15), for it is not enough for a person to know what to say; he or she must also know how to say it. In other words, how a person responds to the speaker, the manner of the reply, may adversely affect the communication process itself.
James, the sacred author, uses the example of an angry reply. However, the how or manner of communication may also apply to insults or name-calling, ad hominem attacks, “assassinating” a person’s character, often resulting in an argument which spirals out of control. When that happens, two persons are talking at, not to, each other. Such a “heated” exchange between them is also indicative of a lack of respect for each other, with each reducing the other to an “it,” a thing or object to be manipulated or abused for one’s own advantage, political or otherwise.
Therefore, in two respects, it takes wisdom, which is developed by experience, to communicate effectively. First, there must be a willingness to listen to the speaker or, to paraphrase Gabriel Marcel, to receive another person’s words into oneself. Second, a person’s mind must carefully choose the right words to reply to the speaker, so that (agree or disagree with each other) an understanding exists between both persons.
“What is meant by meaning?”1 Usually, the answer is: “That which is fulfilling to each individual.” However, real fulfillment must be distinguished from apparent fulfillment. What about the person who believes that stealing money is fulfilling to him or her? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. The object of fulfillment must be morally right or, at least, morally neutral. It cannot be morally wrong. What about the masochist who feels fulfilled in inflicting suffering or pain on others? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. What about the drug dealer who feels “fulfilled” in selling cocaine and crack to kids and teenagers, who, in turn, kill themselves or others. That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. A person who is addicted to drugs may feel fulfilled in taking them. So may an alcoholic feel fulfilled in drinking. But it is not real fulfillment. There is a true fulfillment or meaning in life, which is really good for a person; and a false or apparent fulfillment or meaning in life, which seems to be good for an individual but, in reality, is not.
Does meaning in life really exist? According to the philosophy of nihilism, life is really meaningless,2 but despite that, one must choose for life to be meaningful. Each person must imagine that life has meaning, even though it has none. Meaning, then, is an illusion, a deeply held wish for something to be real but is not.
However, nihilism is contrary to common human experience. It is evident from experience that human beings desire something to fulfill them, something to keep their lives going, even if what they thought would fulfill them, actually, did not.
Problems in Perceiving Life’s Meaning
Problems in perceiving life’s meaning does not mean that life is meaningless. Meaning is a “given,” a starting-point, a first principle. It is a fundamental premise, which is basic to life itself. A person may question the meaning of life. He or she may even despair over life’s meaning. But that does not mean life has no meaning. Rather, it only means that the person fails to perceive his or her meaning or is blind to it, because of existential problems (i.e., problems related to living) in his or her life.
Existential problems include personal frustration; mental confusion; depression; various kinds of addictions (e.g., alcohol, sex, drugs, etc.); emotional problems, related to personal failures; or grief, related to the death of a loved-one or a personal tragedy. A person’s psychological or spiritual condition may prevent him or her from seeing the meaning of his or her life for either a short or long period of time.
For example, the sun really exists, even though it may be covered by clouds for a while. Eventually, however, the clouds pass and the sun can again be seen. Likewise, the “clouds” of life — such as drug addition, suffering physical or emotional abuse, the loss of hope or despair — may cover or obscure the reality of meaning, but that does not mean there is no meaning to life. It is there, whether a person perceives it or not.
Objective or Real Meaning in Life
Meaning is objective. It is real, that is, outside or independent of the human person. In other words, meaning is “out there” in the world to be found by each individual. Meaning is discovered, because it is real. It is not invented by each person.3 The outside dimension of reality fulfills something inside the human person. There is a direct or one-to-one correspondence between the subject, that is, each human person, and the object, that is, the person or thing out in the world, which fulfills him or her.
A Real Need for Meaning in Life
Human beings really need meaning. In other words, there is a “hunger” or “thirst” in the human heart for meaning in life. For example, human beings desire food and water, which do, indeed, exist. Humans also desire meaning in their lives. Hence, it is reasonable that meaning really exists in order to fulfill the object of their desire.4
Of course, a person may miss his or her search for water and food and die from dehydration or starvation, but that does not prove that food and water do not exist. Rather, it only demonstrates that the person has not found the object of his or her search. In other words, the food and water were not in the place that the person had sought for them.
Similarly, if a person does not find meaning in life, that does not mean it does not exist. Rather, it means that the individual missed the object of his or her search. He or she may have been mistaken or misguided in the search for meaning. Therefore, a human being really needs meaning in order to make sense of his or her life, that is, to believe that life is worthwhile or worth living. Meaning gives a person a reason to stay alive, to live for someone or something worthwhile or both.5 It is because a human being has meaning in life that he or she can truly say, “Life is worth living.”
The same point may be stated somewhat philosophically as follows: Human beings find meaning when they transcend themselves, that is, go out of themselves or beyond themselves to someone or something. When they take the focus off themselves and place it on someone or something, they find true fulfillment and, thus, meaning in their lives.6
Of course, human beings can live without meaning, but their lives are not fulfilled. They may not immediately sense that something is missing from their lives. However, because meaning is necessary for a good, fulfilling life, they may, sooner or later, sense or feel a void within themselves, an inner emptiness or, in the words of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an “existential vacuum.”7
A person must be persistent in attempting to discover the meaning of his or her life. He or she must keep on asking in order to find the answer to life’s meaning. He or she must keep on seeking in order to find a meaning to life. He or she must keep on knocking until the “door” of the meaning opens for him or her.
There is an existential or day-to-day meaning to sustain a person in the here-and-now, in this life. There is also an ultimate meaning, which gives meaning not only to a person’s overall life but also his or her moment-by-moment life. Ultimate meaning infuses the day-to-day meaning of a person’s life. In the words of Paul Tillich,
“The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence.”8
For religious persons, the ultimate meaning of life is grounded in the “Eternal Thou,” a “Higher Power” or “the Ground of Being.” That is to say, ultimate meaning comes from believing in God: knowing, loving and serving the Creator. That kind of being, an Ultimate Being, is worthy of a person’s ultimate commitment in life.
Atheists and agnostics have a need for meaning in their lives, just as much as Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other religious group that believes in God. However, atheists fulfill their need for Transcendence in different ways, such as being filled with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe; deriving meaning from loving others, from the enjoyment of music and art; and experiencing the beauty of nature.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), pp. 50-79. In fact, the title of the section of Frankl’s book from which I have developed my ideas in this paper is “What is Meant by Meaning?”
2. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152; cf. p. 131.
In the Jewish Scriptures, there is much wisdom that applies to the Coronavirus pandemic, as people rush in fear to supermarkets or grocery stores to “stock up” on food and other supplies. Those who have the financial means to purchase their goods are, of course, at a distinct economic advantage, because it is possible for them to deplete the shelves of stores, leaving the poor with little, if anything, to care for themselves. That, in fact, is precisely what is happening in not a few places in the United States.
However, the problem I am describing was addressed thousands of years ago to the Jewish people in the Torah, where Yahweh, through Moses, Israel’s great lawgiver, instructs the people to care for the needs of the poor or economically disadvantaged, saying,
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10, NIV).
Elsewhere in the Torah, Moses gives a similar moral and economic principle to Israel, saying,
“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21, NIV).
In other words, those who have the financial means, the economically advantaged, while caring for themselves, should not deplete the land of all its natural resources, leaving nothing for the poor. That moral-economic principle also applies, say, to Costco and BJ’s. Food and other basic human necessities should be available to all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status. It would be well, then, for those who own and manage wholesale stores and supermarkets to keep the Mosaic principle in mind, limiting the consumption of goods, so that those who are less fortunate may be able to care for their basic human necessities.
Today, we humans seem to be losing a rather obvious truth about ourselves, which is that it is an honor to be human. How can we fail to wonder at such a stupendous phenomenon? Yet, the fact of the matter is, we do! How often we pass by each other and ourselves, without the slightest wonder at our humanity. We are not merely things among other things in the world. Nor are we only creatures among others creatures in the cosmos. Rather, we are persons! As Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says,
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
The Failure to Act Humanly
Although we humans are, quite evidently, human persons, sometimes, we need to be taught to act humanly, that is, in keeping with the decency and dignity of persons. For example, to spit in the face of another human being is an insult to him or her and a dishonor to oneself, because such an act is beneath the dignity of a person. Again, when a person is beaten and robbed, that act is a disgrace to him or her and the one who commits it. Still again, to poke or make fun of others, belittling them, is to belittle oneself, because such behavior is not worthy of a human being. Thus, in dishonoring others, one dishonors oneself.
The Unconditional Ascription of Dignity to the Human Person
To be human, then, is not merely to be a human being, but also a humanacting, that is, acting in ways that are worthy of being human. Therefore, a human being may lose — through evil habits or repeatedly acting dishonorably — the capacity to act humanly. However, he or she always remains a human being, neither becoming a thing nor a wild animal. As Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, writes,
“[T]he dignity of each individual human being … is always to be ascribed to the individual person, whether he preserves this dignity or tarnishes it.”
There is a short Latin phrase that captures what I am saying: actio sequitur esse, that is, “action follows being.” Act, then, according to your being, not contrary to being human.
Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 111.
According to psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “[H]uman existence can never be intrinsically meaningless.”1 However, you are, according to Frankl, responsible for finding a meaning to your life. That is thrust squarely upon you, not someone else. There is, a place for you in the world, as if it were made for you alone. To accept that view, however, requires a faith-commitment, an existential “leap of faith.” Such a commitment cannot be proven logically or reduced to a logical argument. Therefore, take a leap of faith, that is, keep on seeking until you find a meaning to your life.
If that fails, then consider another possibility for a meaning to your life, which Dr. Frankl calls “self-transcendence,” a moving away from self-absorption, self-preoccupation, or moving away from focusing all your attention on yourself. In other words, the meaning of your life is directed to others, helping them find meaning in their lives.
Every day, every hour, indeed, every second, life is a choice, either unconsciously or consciously, to live. Despite life’s many uncertainties, you are responsible – either to your own conscience, to others or even to God, or in all three respects – for staying alive. And you will do that much better with, rather than without, a meaning to life. As Frankl writes, giving advice to those who have not, at the moment, found a meaning to their lives,
“[T]ry to be patient and courageous: patient in leaving the problems unresolved for the time being, and courageous in not giving up the struggle for their final solution.”2
Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books/ Random House, 1986), p. 44.
———-, The Will of Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), p. 95.