One thing I learned from Viktor Frankl is that there is no one, universal, abstract “meaning of life.” Rather, the meaning of life is unique to each person. It is in the concrete circumstances of an individual’s actual life situation that he or she can find meaning and purpose.
Frankl, of course, was the great Viennese Jewish psychiatrist who developed what he called “logotherapy,” or “meaning therapy,” in the years prior to the Second World War. His psychiatric theories about how you can find meaning and purpose amidst the tragedies of life were put to the test in the most horrific way possible. He was eventually arrested by the Nazis, all of his books and papers destroyed, his family murdered, and he spent the rest of the war in a concentration camp.
After the war, Frankl dashed off a book in nine days summarizing his experiences in the camps and how what he saw there reaffirmed his belief in logotherapy, a book that became a modern spiritual classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl, who died in 1997, had actually been offered a visa to leave Vienna and go to the United States, where he had a teaching job waiting for him. He had agonized over what he should do… since his parents could not go with him. His father kept a piece of marble on his coffee table, a remnant from the great synagogue of Vienna that had been destroyed by the Nazis. It came from a marble table of the Law upon which are inscribed, in Hebrew, the Ten Commandments – and you could see a few Hebrew letters on this marble shard.
When Viktor Frankl asked his father from which of the Commandments this piece was taken, his father replied, “Honor your father and mother.”
Frankl decided to stay in Vienna.
One of the foundation principles of his logotherapy is a quotation from none other than poor tormented Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
As in Frankl’s own case, most people find the meaning of life in their natural responsibilities for family and friends. My meaning and purpose at this point in my life is to care for my wife and somehow see all my five children through college, on some sort of self-supporting career path and, with luck, happily married. This is what gets me up in the morning. This is my mission.
Part of this mission is my writing. I write to communicate primarily to my children, but also to my four or five other readers not in jail, the thoughts on life I’ve been too busy to communicate directly or in a systematic manner. In a sense, this is part of the legacy I hope to bequeath to my children: the values and ideas and practical tips that my wife and I have lived by and have tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to pass on.
Thus, you are a lucky person indeed if you have someone who depends upon you, who needs you, the way children need their parents and husbands need their wives (and vice versa). The feeling of being needed is what gives people purpose and a meaning to live – not some abstract spiritual vision or theory.
That is why both the very young and the very old face such a struggle: they have fewer people in their lives who need them. The lucky seniors have their dysfunctional children and grandchildren who still depend upon their wisdom, advice and checkbook. Unlucky ones, who have no family members left living, or no friends, have a tough time. No one needs them. It’s a horrible situation. Their only hope, at this stage of their lives, is to find someone more desperate than themselves who needs help – and to be of service that way.
The same is true of the very young, people in their twenties and even thirties. Too many young people feel that no one actually needs them – unless they’re lucky enough to have a disabled mother or sibling they care for. Early adulthood is about having fun, exploring the world, meeting new people and discovering what you enjoy doing – and, most important of all, whom you want to care for, who needs you. If you neglect this last part of the young adult mission – if you focus solely on having fun and your career and don’t spend time looking for people who need your help – then your life does become literally meaningless and sad.
The reason family is so important for most people’s happiness is precisely because it’s a built-in need generating machine: once you have a family, the needs and problems keep coming like a rushing river. The very thing we think we want the least – needs, problems, responsibilities – is actually what we need the most to be happy. This is Viktor Frankl’s message.
“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Frankl writes. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” Asking what the meaning of life is, Frankl says, is like asking a chess master what the best move in chess is. It’s an absurd question. That’s because the best move depends upon the specific situation of an actual game. It’s the same for life. “One should not search for an abstract meaning for life,” Frankl concludes. “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, not can his life be repeated.”
Now, I can already hear my pious friends quoting the Baltimore Catechism to me: The purpose of life is to know, love and serve God in this world and the next. Fair enough. But the way we come to know, love and serve God is precisely in learning how to serve other people in the concrete circumstances of our lives. This is the outlook embodied by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (c. 1675-1751), in his classic book, Abandonment to Divine Providence.
People agonize over what to do in life, Fr. Caussade writes, and cloud their minds with endless cogitating, but life is actually far easier than people realize. All we need to do to discern God’s will for us, he says, is to pay attention to the concrete duties God sends to us at each moment of the day. It means “we accept what we very often cannot avoid, and endure with love and resignation things which could cause us weariness and disgust.”
This is truly the Sacrament of the Present Moment: the discernment of God’s grace and will for us in the complex web of needs and duties that we wrongly think is holding us back from some higher purpose or adventure. To discover the meaning of life, both Frankl and Fr. Caussade affirm, all you have to do is ask: Who needs me? Who needs my help right now? You don’t have to climb a mountain to discover the meaning of life. All you have to do is open your front door.