what is meaning?

Posted on August 17, 2011


“Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent the years 1942-45 in four different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz.  By the end of the war his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had been murdered; among his immediate family, only he and his sister survived.  After the war he published Man’s Search for Meaning, a book inspired by his experiences in the camps, and one in which I’ve found wisdom and comfort during times of difficulty.” (Ed Bastista)

Frankl writes:

[pp 111-115] We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways:

(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.  The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious.  The second and third need further elaboration.

(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone

The Meaning of Love

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.  No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him.  By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized.  Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities.  By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true…

(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The Meaning of Suffering

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.  For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.  When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves…

But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning.  I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering–provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable.  If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political…

There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering.  In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.  In other words, life’s meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of unavoidable suffering…

[In Auschwitz] the question that beset me was, “Has all this suffering, all this dying around us, a meaning?  For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends on such a happenstance–as whether one escapes or not–ultimately would not be worth living at all.”


What I find comforting in Frankl’s perspective is that he’s not denying the grief and rage that spring from suffering and tragedy.  He’s not “making the best of things.”  And he’s not blithely suggesting that “everything happens for a reason” (which I find a particularly unhelpful expression of condolence.)

What Frankl is doing is encouraging us to acknowledge our grief and rage, and also to see our suffering as an experience in which it is possible to find meaning.  The nature of that meaning will be different for all of us, of course, even in response to the same tragedy.  There’s no one-size-fits-all meaning-of-life.  And discovering that meaning will be hard work, made even harder by our grief and rage.  (See more on Frankl’s thinking here: Ed Bastista, http://www.edbatista.com/2010/04/life.html)


So meaning is… a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to take the next step… Existence and experience could be the reason. Just to be and appreciate being. Bringing good into the world could be another reason and by doing so one might allieviate someone’s suffering, elevate someone’s spirit, or increase meaning in other’s lives. Relationships can also be the reason. Try to abolish all sense of meaning and purpose in your life as you gaze into the eyes of a lover… or a baby… or your daughter… Sometimes it is as primal as “keepin’ on” through the Dark Night of the Soul, the abyss of clinical depression that robs a person of all sense of light and right and meaning and purpose. Experience this and you’ll come out with a new sense and appreciation of a “meaningful life”. Try working with people that have been institutionalized all their lives simply because they have a disability, look into their eyes, the blank stare of meaninglessness, and you’ll walk away with a renewed purpose. Sometimes meaning comes from helping others “keep on”. Sometimes it all boils down to a voice of experience that has been there, like these voices that have spoken to me during my darkest hours of clinical depression:

“I finally resolved that I must just keep breathing.” –Tom Hanks in the movie, “Castaway,” after describing his suicide attempt.

“Just stay alive… that’s all, just stay alive.” –David R Banta

And above all, we must always honor the deepest aspirations, hopes, and dreams of others, for within them are the seeds of hope, of purpose, and of meaning. Their raison d’être. Don’t mess with this, for this is sacred and unique among all creatures of the earth. And finally, if you haven’t been in the depths of pain, ready to end it all, open your heart to those that have struggled for meaning and found none. And give thanks and stand in awe of the miracle of the perseverance of the human spirit…

“Whether we try to enter into a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, our service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which we speak.” ~ Henri Nouwen in “The Wounded Healer”

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. They are made.”
~ Elizabeth Kubler Ross

God breaks the heart
again and again and again
until it stays
~ Hazrat Inayat Kahn (Sufi Master)

“The holiest thing we have to offer the world is a broken-open heart, emptied of fear and vengeance, filled with forgiveness and a willingness to take the risks of love.” (Parker Palmer, The Politics of the Brokenhearted)

See also Meaning & Purpose: https://ronirvine.wordpress.com/meaning-purpose/