(For those of you who missed it - or were unable to hear due to our technical difficulties - here's my presentation from last Friday night.)
Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to meet with young people for a basic introduction to Humanism I always start with a provocative statement:
We Humanists have discovered the meaning of life.
After I let that settle in for a moment, I go through a few of the traditional religious ideas about the meaning of life until I get to my real point. What we have actually discovered is that the real meaning of life can only be found in one place, inside of ourselves.
We Humanists know that there is no single purpose or meaning to our lives. We were not “created.” We were not “placed here.” We just are. We exist as a happenstance. Or perhaps it would be better to say a “happy accident.”
Nevertheless, the nature of our existence, our intelligences and emotions and physical and psychological interdependencies, suggests that fashioning meaning in our lives is an existential necessity. It is what keeps us going.
But it is not a “one size fits all” kind of thing. It is different for each individual. Nor is it a “one off." It is a lifelong journey.
In last week's commentary, I shared a little about Dr. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, neurologist, and author of one of the most important books on the subject of life’s purpose, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
Dr. Frankl’s career was committed to a process he called Logotherapy. While you may not be familiar with that term, its ideas are fundamental to those who work in mental health. His approach is founded on the belief that human nature is motivated by a search for meaning in life, by the striving for a life purpose. It is part memoir, part psychological analysis.
A survivor of Auschwitz, Dr. Frankl's convictions were affirmed by what he saw and experienced there. In the midst of the horrors he discovered that the search for meaning and purpose played a critical role for those who were fortunate to survive.
In the end, he was one of those lucky few and, combining that experience with his insight, he shared the wisdom he could with his patients and all of us.
He believed that what he learned and taught was by no means unique to the kind of extraordinary suffering of the camps; that every human being – no matter the causes of their problems or predicaments – could benefit from uncovering the internal resources and wherewithal at their command which might help them to frame their own meaning.
As we navigate through this difficult and challenging period, his teachings have become even more important to me and many others.
One of these, perhaps the most critical, is that no matter our circumstances, no matter what is denied us or taken away, we always retain one basic human freedom: to choose our own responses to any situation.
We are not always free to choose our circumstances. If that wasn’t clear to everyone before, it certainly is now. Life always presents obstacles. Dr. Frankl recognized – as Humanism acknowledges – that the world is filled with suffering. Even a world with less conflict and human evil would never be free of accidents or diseases or death.
Nevertheless, said Dr. Frankl, this existential reality does not deprive us of the singular freedom to choose our own inner path; to be guided by our character and obligations to ourselves and others; to pursue meaning and purpose.
He wrote: "If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death."
And so we can – in fact, we must – also find meaning in suffering.
As he noted:
The way in which one accepts fate and all the suffering it entails … gives ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to … life.
When I read his work I am constantly impressed by the importance he places on reaching out to others. So much of his ability to find meaning in suffering was informed – throughout his career, not just at Auschwitz – by seeing how people fulfilled their duties to one another. It was in selflessness more than anything else, that his patients reported overcoming feelings of helplessness.
By taking care of family or reaching out to friends and neighbors, by tending to community needs or working for social justice, by taking action on any of the myriad things that we can do for ourselves and others, we, too, can rise above despondency. As Dr. Frankl wrote:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
Sometimes our concerns will be drawn to one need, sometimes to another. But in each and every instance in which we rise to some higher aspiration, we are choosing our own response to suffering. We are refusing to allow our situation to define us.
Our hardships and our pain may pose obstacles, may constitute stumbling blocks. But they are no barrier to our inner choices. Those remain under our control. Suffering cannot deprive us of that freedom.
Several times in his book Dr. Frankl echoes Neitzche, who said: “One who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Think of all the whys we have to live for: family, friends, and community that depend upon each of us; people who are in need of our strength and people we can depend upon for theirs. We cannot be there for each other when we are sinking ever deeper into a meaningless pit of despair.
Only when we choose to exercise our essential freedom to take control of our reaction will we find the courage to resist despair and the strength to carry on. When I am disheartened – as I have found myself throughout this pandemic – I try to remember that no matter my pain
this can never be taken from me. I remember my duties to my loved ones, to my friends, to my community and I find both my purpose and resolve renewed.
In a particularly moving passage, Dr. Frankl shares that in his moments of greatest distress, he directed his heart to his loved ones. Unsure of whether they were alive or dead, he recognized that his love for them nevertheless revived him, reminding him of the meaning and purpose of his own life:
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 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.
Recently I saw a t-shirt bearing the slogan, "Love is our superpower."
May each of us renew the meaning and purposes of our own lives. And may love help guide the way.