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Man’s Search for Meaning


The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “To be what we are and to become what we are capable of becoming is the ultimate end of life.” Psychologist Carl Rogers explains the importance of knowing who you are and becoming a person:


As I follow the experience of my clients in the therapeutic relationship, it seems to me that each one has the same problem. Below the level of the problem situation about which the individual is complaining—behind the trouble with studies, or wife, or employer, or feelings—lies one central search. It seems to me that, at the bottom, each person is asking, “Who am I, really? How can I get in touch with this real self underlying all of my surface behavior? How can I become myself?” It appears that the goal the individual most wishes to achieve—the end that he knowingly or unknowingly pursues—is to become himself.1


In the search for self, people inevitably face the meaning of their own existence. The path their reasoning follows is “How can I know what is the right thing to do unless I know why I am here?” This question, so basic for humankind, is unique among all animal species. This is because human beings are the only animals who try to discover what sort of creatures they are. They are the only beings who consciously wonder, “Who am I, and why am I here?”


Everyone Needs Something Important Yet to Be Done

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, writes that “everyone needs something important yet to be done.” This simple and powerful statement is the foundation for preserving mental health and living a life with no regrets. At every crossroads and in every moment, the wise person asks what is important and then acts accordingly, knowing that what is done or is not done will go down in history and, in this sense, be irretrievable.


Having a purpose in life helped Frankl survive the stress of his own death camp experiences during World War II. He writes about when he was disgusted and overwhelmed:


I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room…I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp…All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they already had become a part of the past.2


On the basis of his experiences in the Nazi camps, Frankl concluded that the need for meaning in one’s life is the fundamental motive for human existence. It is required for psychological health and for survival, itself.


The search for meaning is common to all people, but what each person finds is unique to that person. One person may define meaning in a social sense—having children and raising a family. Another may define meaning in religious terms—to fulfill one’s part in God’s divine plan. Still another may view meaning on a personal plane—to know oneself and one’s place in the universe. Consider the ideas of English philosopher Bertrand Russell in his short essay “What I Have Lived For.”


What I Have Lived For


Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.


I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one in shivering consciousness, looks over the rim of the world into the cold, unfathomable, lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven the saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.


With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine…A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.


Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims of torture by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.


This has been my life. I have found it worth living and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.3


The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre identifies the central task or project of every person’s life to be as follows: Be aware of who you are and take personal responsibility for your own existence. He states, “The freedom to choose is the only freedom one does not have the freedom to renounce.”4 This is what Viktor Frankl observed and wrote based on his own experiences:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.5


The Importance of Vision

Thomas Carlisle, the Scottish philosopher, believed that people do not fear death. We know we have to die. What we fear is death without meaning. We want to leave our mark and make a difference. This is what is meant by living a big life. A big life begins with a vision. Consider the following story and the power of vision.


I was fourteen years old the night my daddy died. He had holes in his shoes, but two children out of college, one in college, another in divinity school, and a vision he was able to convey to me as he lay dying in an ambulance, that I, a young Black girl, could be and do anything; that race and gender are shadows; and that character, self-discipline, determination, attitude, and service are the substance of life.6

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes the importance of having a vision: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.


The following exercise can be used to create a personal vision for your life. After considering the forces that have shaped your past and evaluating the “prouds” and “sorries” that describe your present, you can develop a positive and future-focused vision that gives meaning to your life.


Quo Vadis—Where Are You Going? Complete the following exercise. Do this when you are rested; do it alone. Then share this with others who care. Note that Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase, meaning “Where are you going?”




Future—The Power of Vision

What positive and future-focused vision gives meaning to your life?


Purpose

What is important that is yet to be done?

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Goals What goals must be accomplished to fulfill your purpose?

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Values What core values guide your life—on what basis do you decide what is right and wrong?

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Stakeholders Who cares about your vision, and what will it mean to them when you are successful?

Family ___________________________________________________________

Friends ___________________________________________________________

Others ____________________________________________________________ Strategy to Succeed Consider actions steps to fulfill your vision. What is needed to achieve your vision?

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What should you continue doing because it is working well?

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What should you start doing if you are going to be successful?

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What should you stop doing because it harms your vision?

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How should you monitor progress?

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Making Your Vision Come True Three time-tested tips for making visions come true are first, picture the world of your dreams. Imagine what it would be like to live in that world. Read, go to lectures, and talk to people who are in that world. Second, seek advice and encouragement from people who believe in you and your dreams but are willing and able to be objective. Third, be prepared to go the distance. The difference between people who have dreams and those who achieve them is usually a matter of hard work and dogged persistence. Remember the following words on a Church window in Sussex, England, c. 1730.


A vision without a task is a dream,

A task without a vision is a drudgery,

A vision with a task is the hope of the world.


Recommended Books Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl


Plato, Not Prozac by Lou Marinoff


Soul Pancake by Rainn Wilson

References

  1. Rogers, C. (1958). On becoming a person. Austin, TX: University of Texas, Hogg Foundation for Mental Hygiene.

  2. Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

  3. Russell, B. (1967). The autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

  4. Sartre, J.P. (1974). Being and nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel OPress.

  5. Frankl, V. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

  6. Edelman, M.W. (1994). The meaning of our success: A letter to my children and yours. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.




George Manning, Author and Editor Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn


Jennifer Zimmerman, Author and Editor

Freelance editor, writer, and consultant

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