Over the past two years, I have taught a variant of the course ‘Psychology of Relationships’ at the University of Toronto; what makes it amongst the most interesting course topics I have had the pleasure of teaching is the stories that students openly share with me and their fellow classmates. To date, however, no student remains in my mind more than Annabelle*, who had experienced terrible heartbreak and betrayal.
After escaping from a treacherous physically abusive and emotionally demoralizing relationship, she had soon met someone kind, with whom she fell in love quickly. Their romance blossomed happily, until her mother, for reasons still unbeknownst to her, informed Annabelle’s partner that she had been unfaithful to him – a complete confabulation. Despite her pleas of innocence, he hastily ended their relationship, finding it impossible to believe Annabelle’s claim that her own mother would do such a thing to her only daughter. As a result, Annabelle’s life had been ravaged; uprooted in such a way that she had lost all purpose, trust in others, and hope: She was barely able to sit through a lecture without tearing up, and, as I later learned, despite graduating, took none of the employment opportunities offered to her, became completely uninterested in forming any potential romantic connection, and felt the main purpose she once had in life – that is, to build a family and express her warmth and love to those around her – left along with her partner. Day after day, she sat at home, devoid of any real responsibility, bitter and barely living. Her life, in a word, was meaningless.
Source: Source: Stockpic/Pixaby CC0
According to psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, our search for meaning is our primary motivation as humans; only when we ascribe meaning to an event, can we accept it and move beyond it, and only when we have meaning in our lives, do we truly live. With this idea, Frankl created what is recognized as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy: ‘Logotherapy’. Distinct from Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, Frankl’s meaning-centered approach to therapy is grounded in three basic tenets:
Freedom of Will
Frankl posited that as spiritual beings, in addition to having a body and mind, humans are not merely animals that have set ways of reacting to events, but rather, we have the freedom to choose how to respond to the world. This strong existential foundation suggests that at any time, we have control over our circumstances.
Will to Meaning
All humans are compelled to have a purpose and to achieve goals. Thus, when a person is unable to grasp a purpose in his or her life, the resulting sense of emptiness gives rise to a host of negative affect and effect, from addiction and depression to neurotic disorders and suicide. Instead, one should take on a responsibility and “get to work” in order to find meaning.
Meaning in Life
Frankl emphasized that there was an objective reality to the meaning of life that was experienced individually, and that this meaning could not be invented, but instead, had to be discovered by the individual. In other words, you would not be able to find another person’s assertion of what you should find meaningful as meaningful. In an example given in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes a heartbroken man unable to cope with the death of his wife. Frankl asked him, “What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” replied the patient, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” To which Frankl responded, “You see such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving her and mourning her.”
By helping the man find individual meaning in an objectively painful situation, he was better able to cope knowing the value of sparring his wife the pain of mourning. Thus, the question is not “what is the meaning of life”, but rather, “each man is questioned by life, and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life…”
It is important to note that the conditions that propelled Frankl’s work in meaning-making as a therapy were not those of an “armchair philosophizing”, but instead, genuine hardship and pain: In 1942, Frankl was forced into a Jewish ghetto in German- occupied Czechoslovakia, along with his wife, brother, parents, and nearly 150,000 Jews. From there, he escaped death from Auschwitz, a concentration camp claiming the lives of 1.3 million, lived through the horrors of working as a slave labourer in a second concentration camp, and eventually came to working as a physician in degrading conditions at a third camp. During this hellish time, Frankl kept himself from nihilistic and suicidal thoughts by finding purpose in recreating his life’s work – a manuscript he had sewn into the lining of his coat, which he had to discard during his transfer to Auschwitz – by writing on every scrap of paper he could find; convincing himself that his family was alive; keeping other prisoners from committing suicide by reminding them of their purpose; and, indeed, even finding purpose in his pain. Finally, he was liberated by American soldiers on April 27, 1945. He was the only member of his family who survived the concentration camps.
While Frankl found deep meaning in his own experience, how can we find meaning in our lives? In Frankl’s words, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:
1) By creating a work or doing a deed
2) By experiencing something or encountering someone
3) By the attitude, we take toward unavoidable suffering”, in which “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 circumstances”.
Indeed, we can find our sense of purpose through action, not inaction, and becoming responsible. As Frankl wrote, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” This means, more practically speaking, that people should strive to find purpose in their daily responsibilities. If you find your work meaningless but are, financially or otherwise, unable to have a more meaningful career, mentoring junior colleagues or ensuring that everything you are tasked is done well could bring a revivified sense of meaning. Outside of work, cultivating hobbies and exploring new or existing passions could further add to develop a deep inner world and lead to an enriched life.
The second way of finding meaning is through love: “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.” While we tend to think of love as wholly romantic, this needn’t always be the case: Being effortful in any relationship, and a focused sense of building love between your friends and family, as well as having an appreciation for the love received, can further create a more purposeful life. Paying more attention to what those around you do well, instead of looking firstly at their faults, is a good place to start.
Lastly, remaining optimistic and comforting oneself with dignity, in spite of the “tragic triad”, that is, the pain, guilt, and death that each human will encounter in his or her life, can add dignity and meaning. As Frankl writes,
“(t)he one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Being mindful in how we choose to react to the stressors of life can certainly impact the outcome, even if the only outcome we can control is simply how we feel about our actions. In a situation where nothing can be done, what Frankl emphasized is the idea that a person can always choose his or her response, and there is responsibility and potential dignity to be found in that choice.
For Annabelle, she eventually found her purpose by realizing that despite falling victim to a malevolent act and losing genuine love, her unique ability to give love and radiate warmth was not specific to her ex-partner and it deserved to be shared with others. This ignited her hope in meeting someone new and propelled her towards a career. She eventually found a loving partner, purposeful and enjoyable employment in a caring profession, and now reflects on the years of her suffering with pride, grateful for how she chose to surmount her pain; that is, meaningfully.
* Name changed for privacy. Published with permission.
Frankl, V. E. (1962). Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press.
© Mariana Bockarova, PhD