Friday, September 21, 2012

The Quest for Meaning

I recently got the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank Museum in the Netherlands.  While navigating through the secret annex where the Franks hid for two years during the holocaust, I felt a plethora of emotions:  sadness for the victims and their fate, horror at how far hate can go and surprisingly pride.  I was proud of the girl, because at the end of it all she accomplished what she set out for from the beginning of her persecution- for her story to be heard.

Later, while reflecting, I thought of Viktor Frankl.  Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor.  He is credited with founding Logotherapy, a branch of psychotherapy that focuses on finding meaning in life as the main driving force of humans.  The basic principles of logotherapy are as follows (About Logotherapy):
  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones
  • Our main motivation for living is finding meaning in life
  • We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do and experience because of our freedom to choose how we respond to circumstances

Frankl tested these principles during his time in the holocaust.  In fact, he credited this exact theory with helping him survive at Auschwitz Concentration camp (more on this can be read in Frankl’s book “Man’s search for Meaning”).

At the Anne Frank museum, Anne Frank’s childhood friend can be heard recalling a conversation she had with Anne before she perished.  Anne had just found out that her mother and sister were dead and since she did not know the fate of her father she felt completely desolate. She confided in her friend that she had no one left.  Anne’s friend recalled that Anne died from Typhus just a month before liberation; she then suggested that if Anne knew that her father was alive, she might not have died.   Therefore, it can be argued that since Anne felt alone, with no reason to live, she regarded her life as no longer having meaning- thus she saw no reason to keep fighting for life.

The search for meaning, as per Frankl, is not necessarily synonymous with the search for a higher/supernatural being.  He lists’ three different ways in which one can discover the meaning of life:
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone
  • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering- everything  can be taken from a man except the freedom to choose his/her attitude in any given set of circumstances
    • Disclaimer  It must be noted that although one can find meaning in life through suffering, this should only be the case when the suffering is inevitable, i.e. the other two options are not available.  One should not allow oneself to suffer unnecessarily.
  • By creating a work or doing a deed

As a student of Industrial/Organizational psychology, I cannot help but resonate with Frankl’s idea that meaning of life can be found by creating work.  I do not mean work in the conventional sense that is routine for most of us, and I do not believe that this is what Frankl meant either.   I mean work as in the kind that allows you to leave your mark behind.   This work may or may not be your career, but I believe that it is very possible for it to be.

It has been argued time and time again that your career should not be the sole purpose of your life (Article published on Psychology Today about why your career should not be your identity).  However, even so, you can find meaning in it.  Frankl chronicled that everybody has his or her own specific vocation in life and everybody must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment.   This specific vocation can be found anywhere and today, it is more possible than ever to find it through your career.

Whether you are a social worker who is genuinely driven by helping others, a business person whose innovations contribute to the betterment of the community or someone in the fashion industry whose creative eye inspires generations- your work can have meaning.  Furthermore, this meaning is not just limited to the work desk; it can transcend above and beyond to every aspect of your life.

1 comment:

  1. You're an amazing writer. Thank you for the inspiration. The universe is calling rubi g. back. This blog is its third attempt this week.