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Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’

“To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.” — Robert McKee, Story

“Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway.” — Mark Manson

When I was reading Frankl’s idea that the meaningful thing to do when confronted with avoidable suffering is to avoid it, my first thought was, oh, does this make decision-making simpler? Avoid suffering! Got it.

But the dilemma of leaving behind unnecessary suffering is actually at the crux of many difficult decisions. Because sometimes it is not at all clear which path will lead to less suffering. We are sometimes confronted with decisions in which there is no great answer, no win-win-win that Michael Scott (The Office) championed, no choice that effectively avoids all suffering. At which point it is a determination as to which is the lesser evil, and the answer to that question is sometimes not at all obvious.

What we are left to navigate, then, is a map of decision points. Our choices shape our lives and give them meaning, and they also determine what stories we set down now that change into our pasts with the passing of time. Those stories, which can be re-told, re-interpreted, and even subverted, in turn play their part in forming our identities.

And sometimes we do not know. And sometimes, not knowing, we take large risks. And sometimes those risks do not pay off the way we wish they would.

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

But a life with no risk–besides being impossible, since walking out your door is a risk, as is choosing to stay home–becomes a life of less meaning. Moments matter more because they are impermanent and cannot last. Meaning is created from change, from development, from action and experience. We cannot know and yet we act, and from that action we illustrate who we are. Sometimes we even create who we are. And this is the case regardless of outcome.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of actions, of how I’ve been training myself to pay more attention to people’s actions and less attention to their words (particularly when the two don’t match up). Recently I’ve been thinking not only of how actions define others, but how my actions define me, and more particularly, the relationship between actions and emotions.

For a long time I was baffled by the common wisdom that we get to choose how to react to any given situation. “What was the choice?” I wondered. If someone did something and I felt angry or hurt or sad about it, well then, I was angry or hurt or sad. I couldn’t magically choose not to feel those things.

But what I realize now is that yes, of course I will feel whatever emotions might be present inside me. And it is difficult to choose what those might be in specific situations (although there are ways to foster more compassionate and/or positive outlooks in general). Sometimes emotions just happen. But emotions do not have to define me in the same way that my actions do.

Indeed, in many cases my actions will result in changing my emotions. And my emotions can be valuable indicators of when action might be needed and sometimes even of the types of actions I need to consider. Using my emotions as a kind of barometer to help determine action leads to them defining me less than they did previously, when they just sat there, an inert lump in my stomach.

But for this to work, risk is still necessary. Uncertainty is still present. I don’t always know the right thing to do.

Sometimes there is no right thing to do.

And I think part of what Robert McKee and Mark Manson are saying is that this state of uncertainty is okay. Because the uncertainty makes our decisions matter.

And then these decisions imbue our lives with the meaning we crave.

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I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. 🙂

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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