By Francis P. Xavier, SJ
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Rider, London, 2004
Man’s Search for Meaning is a highly popular book, which has sold more than 9 million copies. It is not a new book by any means. It was written in 1946 by Victor E. Frankl, who survived four Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He wrote this book in nine consecutive days.
Frankl’s conviction is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal one can aspire for. The salvation of every person is through love and in life. Love transcends this hopeless, meaningless world, when we live for others. People find their meaning in life, when they actually look for meaning in the other’s life. He would add that a sense of humour adds light to the art of mastering life.
“The ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative” (p.55). But whatever be the challenges, difficulties, and obstacles, one ‘can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress’ (p.74). It originates from the conviction that “if there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (p.76). To realize this and search for the meaning of our lives we need a paradigm shift or change in our attitude towards life, namely ‘it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us’ (p.85).
We can discover this meaning in life, according to Frankl, in three different ways.
This is possible when humans become conscious of their responsibility towards person(s) they love and understand the unfinished work they have to do for their sake. This determines their purpose in life and tells them why they should exist. At the same time they have to look for how to realize this goal in real life.
At this juncture, Frankl brings in logotherapy (idea of meaning). Logotherapy actually focuses on the future, that is to say, on the meaning to be fulfilled in one’s future life. He asserts, “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning” (p.105).
He cites a public-opinion poll conducted in France. According to the survey 89% admitted that man needs ‘something’ for the sake of which to live. In addition, 61% conceded that there was something, or someone, in their lives for whose sake they were even ready to die. That ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is the reason or the meaning for one’s life even amidst hardships. Another statistical survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University among 7,948 students from 48 colleges indicated that 16% of the students wanted to ‘make a lot of money’, while 78% underlined that their primary goal was ‘to find a purpose and meaning in life’ (p.105).
Hence what matters is specific meaning of a person’s life. Frankl says, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in ‘responsibleness’ the very essence of human existence” (p.114).
We can discover this meaning in life, according to Frankl, in three different ways: i. by creating a work now or later or doing a good deed; ii. by experiencing something or encountering someone; and iii. by our attitude toward unavoidable and unexpected suffering. The first one could be realized by our achievements and accomplishments, while the second and third by our constant search, finding, and realization.
Most people in the world have enough to live by but nothing to live for. They have the means to live but have no meaning in life (p.142). In an existential vacuum with the feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness, one should search for meaning for life in living for others to do something beautiful and meaningful and useful to others. This is echoed in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, “Love ought to show itself in deeds more than in words”.
When we manage to find meaning in life we begin to live our lives for the second time, but in a more effective way. Frankl ends the book with the words, ”Let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake” (p.154).
Fr. Francis P. Xavier, SJ has been in administration as Provincial (MDU), Director (LIFE and LICET), and Vice president of Jesuit Worldwide Learning. Currently, he is the Rector of Loyola Jesuit Institutions, Chennai. An author and researcher, with several books, articles, and webinars to his credit, his research now is on ‘Religion and Science.