The meaning we make

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and psychiatrist who spent years in four concentration camps during World War II, where at least four family members died: his wife, both his parents and his brother.

When the war ended and he was freed, he wrote his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in just nine days. He later re-married and Elly was with him for the next 50 years before he died, aged 92, in 1997.

By the time he had entered the concentration camps, Frankl had already invented the psychological treatment process called logotherapy, literally “healing through meaning”.

Frankl disagreed with his fellow Austrian psychological forefathers Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, whose respective theories of psychology were that humans were driven by the need for pleasure (Freud) or the need for power (Adler).

Frankl, on the other hand, believed strongly that the meaning of life was meaning itself.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked … Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Each of us is questioned by life. It is not up to us to question.

We can not search for meaning, nor can we ever find it.

But we must make it, because meaning is among the most powerful drivers.

We must make meaning out of whatever it is we are going through, or have gone through, and the meaning we make must relate to the service of others.

And when we succeed in making meaning out of our endless little problems and minor tests and major struggles in this life, the meaning we make from them will make everything worthwhile.

We choose the meaning. It’s up to us, but it relates to others.

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.

And while that could feel like a heavy burden — it’s quicker, always, to take on a thing given to us by someone else than to craft something for ourselves — there is joy and liberation in it too.

We make meaning out of whatever it is we go through, and the meaning we make makes life better for people other than ourselves.

As life philosophies go, it’s not a bad one to live by.