A few years ago I read the now infamous book by Victor Frankl, ‘Man’s search for Meaning‘. Frankl was himself a psychiatrist by trade, but he was also a survivor of the holocaust having spent 3 years of his life in various concentration camps. Frankl’s book is about his experiences in such camps and of his reflections from living through the Nazi socialism era of history.
Although parts of the book are harrowing and outright depressing, such as the stories Frankl shares of himself and his peers struggling to meet basic survival needs like food, warmth and shelter on a daily basis, I was however perplexed at the interpretations Frankl arrived at regarding the meaning of life. Since reading his book I have always thought to myself, “After so much suffering, how was it that Frankl could still only arrive at *this* interpretation for the meaning of life?!”
Now, I am not criticizing his experience nor his writing, I am merely pointing out my confusion that this intelligent man – someone who specialized in psychiatry, after all – could only arrive at the conclusions he arrived at. If you have not read the book, it’s worth the read just to hear the tales of hardship that Frankl endured, but it’s also worth the read to question how you feel about Frankl’s interpretation about life.
Our Search for Meaning
In my summary, Frankl rightly points out that mankind has this strange desire for meaning. We always want a situation, an event, or our own identity to both have and hold meaning; now and in the future. The problem, however, is Frankl’s attachment to his own individual self in trying to find meaning in his suffering; of how he endured, of how his attitude towards his situation changed, of how love, hope, God and positivity saved him.
Although all this is great advice, and Frankl has some amazing quotes to live by in the book, such as:
- “No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.”
- “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
- “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Frankl does not however discuss the holism of the event. In a way, he fails to acknowledge that the meaning he derived from being in those camps was also true of the guards who kept him in there. In a somewhat ironic way, Frankl divorces himself as a ‘prisoner’ who suffered because of the context of his situation. He never questions the unity between guard and prisoner, or of humanity overall.
If he had questioned further, as is the case in Buddhist doctrines, Frankl might’ve arrived at existence itself as the ultimate place of existential inquiry – that all existence is a form of suffering. The secret is, however, to learn why you musn’t suffer over the suffering. We suffer predominately because we desire meaning, but in actuality, the suffering comes in knowing why we suffer. Where we get confused is that we desire meaning for ourselves rather than understanding that we are all in this together, and we essentially all share the same meaning.
So… what is the meaning of life?
Unfortunately, you are not going to like my answer, especially as we in the West tend to strive for happiness and joy and see suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. However, in many Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism and Taoism, the state of nothingness is seen as the true Utopian state, and existence is seen as Dystopian.
In this view, attachment and desire broke consciousness out of its nothingness state, and the physical world is our attempt to navigate ourselves back to Utopia. This is why when people say that life “is all for nothing” I smile to myself as nothingness is the point of life entirely. The meaning of life is so obvious and so simple: just be alive. We must all be before we can all collectively not-be.
We suffer precisely because we (the collective “we” as in one universal consciousness) desired meaning and status above what it already had – Utopian bliss. Pure love. Whatever you want to call it. Think of it as attachment to identity – of the creation of ego which broke consciousness by asking itself “If I am both everything and nothing, can I become something I cannot be?” It’s the same paradoxical question of “If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, can he create a rock so heavy that he himself cannot life it?”
We already were everything we could be, and in our desire, we broke ourselves into a physical world for which we have, ever since, been trying to escape from. This is why technology is the “most human thing about us”. Through technological advance, we are slowly eradicating the physical world to return to nothingness. Stay tuned for a future blog post about this!