It’s impossible for me to fully grasp the despair felt by inmates in Nazi death camps near the end of World War II. The psychologist, Viktor Frankl, was among those trapped in indescribably horrific conditions. Yet, he emerged after three grueling years in Auschwitz bearing a message of hope. Despite having lost all recognizable liberty, he unearthed the most potent human freedom: the capacity to select one’s attitude, irrespective of the circumstances.
While many of us endure neglect, abuse, or loss, few have suffered as intensely as Frankl. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he details his experiences. Surrounded by death and disease, he managed to retain his sanity and remained curious about what prevented him from surrendering to despair or hatred towards his inhumane captors, while others succumbed.
Frankl’s resilience could have been shaped by his upbringing, genetics, or personality. But more likely, it stems from a habit of making one crucial decision: to concentrate solely on what was within his control. He chose not to wrestle with his horrific conditions but to maintain his humanity by managing his attitude.
“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Even critically ill with typhoid fever, Frankl persevered where others faltered. Despite hovering near death, he kept himself conscious and breathing during the long nights by mentally reconstructing his lost manuscript, The Doctor and the Soul. Faced with imminent death, he made concrete plans and executed them. An unyielding will to find life’s meaning propelled him to harness all accessible resources (however sparse) to accomplish his goals.
Frankl’s suffering seemed to have expedited his grasp of vital truths. He developed a tool known as logotherapy, which helped his patients uncover their life’s purpose. To do this, he posed a simple, but somewhat morbid, question: “Why do you not commit suicide?”
The question might be shocking at first. It’s not that I dwell on my life’s worthiness. However, there have been moments when I pondered if life’s tribulations are justified by its rewards. Frankl’s question, coming as it does from beyond the grave, bursts the bubble of any romantic notions about the tortured soul and the nobility of suicide. It reminds us life is a choice by asking, “Why are you here?”
As our attitudes are informed by our self-perception and goals, I suggest writing down your immediate responses. My answers may sound cliche to you, but they hold profound significance for me. Documenting your responses could offer some sought-after clarity.
To be present for my wife and children
To assist as many people as possible in finding success and meaning
To enhance my mind through learning to write and communicate effectively
To support my family financially by acquiring and using valuable skills
To uplift others
To create beautiful things that stir my soul
I’m not here to amass wealth, change the world, or gain global fame. My mission is to uplift you if I can, share a sunset occasionally with loved ones, and take pride when I manage to communicate an idea with clarity and power.
There are, of course, many other practical questions we must confront about our purpose and how to live a fulfilling life. However, I doubt there’s a better starting point than this potent, albeit morbid, query posed by Viktor Frankl.
Here’s a parting word of encouragement. If your reasons for being seem unreachable, don’t lose hope. Any worthy goal may be too grand for us alone—it’s meant for us to share. Your faith will strengthen as you take steps towards your purpose. Risks, failures, and Viktories all carry meaning along the path. A fuller life awaits you beyond your comfort zone.
How to Infuse Your Work with Meaning
To turn your everyday tasks into a fulfilling experience, consider adopting these three impactful strategies to infuse your work with purpose.
Adopt a Positive Attitude: Approach your work optimistically, concentrating on how your tasks align with the broader mission.
Discover Meaning in Small Tasks: Examine the intent behind each of your tasks to enhance both your sense of fulfillment and the quality of your work.
Aim to Uplift Others: Offering support to your colleagues can not only enrich your day but also foster a positive work environment.
By focusing on these three pivotal actions, you can cultivate a work experience that is both meaningful and fulfilling.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a profound recount of his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, where he developed logotherapy, a psychotherapeutic method to find reasons to live. His theory posits that life’s meaning can be discovered through work (doing something significant), love (caring for another person), and courage in times of hardship. The book underscores that even in unbearable circumstances, humans have the freedom to select their attitude towards suffering and thus, find meaning in it. ↩︎
Frankl shares the story of surviving Typhus fever in a Bavarian prison camp in the second part of Man’s Search for Meaning. The manuscript of his book had been prepared for publication, but was confiscated. His desire to recreate this work was instrumental to his survival. ↩︎
Here is a relevant quote from an article summarizing logotherapy: “…one of Frankl’s great contributions to mental health counseling was to ask clients, ‘Why do you not commit suicide?’ From their answer, Frankl assisted clients in finding their logos (a Greek word for ‘meaning’) and built therapy around it.” — Dieser, Rodney B., and Cynthia Wimberly. “Celebrating Man’s Search for Meaning.” Counseling Today, June 7, 2021. https://ct.counseling.org/2021/06/celebrating-mans-search-for-meaning/. ↩︎
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