Elucidating the meaning-of-life problem
I finally read the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. This is roughly a book review with some insights thrown in.
tl;dr Viktor Frankl was a prisoner for three years in Nazi concentration camps. Many of the inmates wondered whether there was a point to keep on living in these camps. The Austrian psychiatrist thus has not only a great psychological perspective on our relationship with the meaning-of-life, but also a strong personal philosophical grasp of it. He describes his experiences, and then Logotherapy — which is a form of psychotherapy he developed, that builds on the belief that men are most powerfully motivated by their will to meaning.
I was never excited to hear about the author’s time in a concentration camp. It just isn’t a very pleasant thing. Retrospectively, however, I am glad I read through it. Although I knew about the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany on a factual level, hearing a first person perspective of it, annotated with the inner voices of the prisoners and vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and feelings allowed me a little more emotional access to the events of the Holocaust. (Note: just a little, for as the author quotes the ex-prisoners: “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.”).
Even if the insight into life in the concentration camps was not sufficient for accurately empathizing with ex-prisoners, it is at least enough to charge the reader emotionally and make them wonder: Is life truly so meaningful that it is worth such torment?
This leads nicely into the second half of the book which describes Logotherapy. Again I was initially skeptical of the psychoanalysis that was about to ensue, but I found many of the things said to be incredibly insightful and moving.
Some of my favourite lines:
“ As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” — Nietzche
I was quite impressed to see Frankl address the feeling of total meaninglessness of life — which he calls the Existential Vacuum.
His account of it is so good that I present it here verbatim:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behaviour is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behaviour are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him. what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do
Not only does he present this account, but I believe that the rest of his book which outlines the theoretical aspects of Logotherapy address it very adequately. The book has great actionable advice that is worth checking out.
I will summarise his response to the existential vacuum with some of my own intuitions and words. I have come to believe that the simply stated question: “What is the meaning of life?” is misguided. It is either too difficult to be answered by us, or not even a well-posed question. As Frankl says, it might be comparable to asking a chess champion: “What is the best move there is?”. There is no best move.
Personally, this realisation has reduced the existential problem to two very practical problems: 1) Finding things to do and 2) Alleviating existential angst by finding meaning in those things.
In the book “All Things Shining” (another great read for those perplexed about the meaning-of-life), this intuition is built that meaning is a spontaneous phenomenon. It is something that needs to be felt, just as its absence is felt. As Frankl says: “ One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.”
With this in mind, enjoy your life and its meaning. Think not about the futility or the arbitrariness of it all, for that is but a reality, which if anything should be seen enabling. Instead focus on the present moment and proudly do what is meaningful to you. Having read this book, I now better understand Camus when he said “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.
It is a short book, and I will recommend it to those interested in existentialism, meaning-of-life, nihilism, suicide or psychotherapy whether from a psychological or philosophical perspective.