Victor Frankl in the seminal Man???s Search for Meaning, wrote of how we find meaning through how we choose to live our life moment by moment. As a psychiatrist and a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, where he lost all but one of his 20 relatives, he posed, for me, the most elegant of all scientific hypotheses: ‘If there is meaning to life, it can’t be a fair-weather meaning. It should exist here with me in this spartan life, in this concentration of suffering.’ It was a simple life in the camp and so there was less to examine – if meaning was there it was going to be easier to find. It was the one meal a day that ultimately proffered the answer. With the piece of bread and the bowl of swill, it dawned on Frankl that he had choices – some of which were more meaningful than others. ‘I could eat this bread now, or save it for later, or trade it for something to read. I could drink this swill immediately, or I could share it with my sick friend.’ Each choice had more or less meaning for him and as he pursued the more meaningful choices – like imagining himself speaking of his work at medical conferences in the future – he noticed a profound change not just in his immediate mood but in his outlook on life.
At many junctures during our day, we can choose to respond to life???s many challenges in a way that is more meaningful or less meaningful for us. In this way, step by step, moment by moment, we can create a more meaningful life. Franklreminds us that life is not inherently meaningful, but that it is through exercising our freedom of choice, that we make it meaningful, more rewarding. This awareness forces us to work out what it is that we truly value, what it is that we want to choose to attend to – as I discussed in the recent blog on where we place our attention. Through becoming aware of what is meaningful to us, for it is different for each of us, we can slowly but surely move our life towards our purpose and live in a way that aligns with our values.
Often we don???t even realise that we have the opportunity to choose. More to the point, we don???t want to. It is much easier to go through our days conveniently overlooking our opportunities to create meaning in our life. Like all forms of creation, it takes effort and it doesn???t always achieve the desired outcome ??? we can ???fail???. By choosing we take responsibility for things not working out – this is Existential Responsibility, the yin of the ‘choosing meaning’ yang. ‘Failure’ is painful – but then nothing focuses us on what we need to learn more than pain. This is why pain gives us much more potential for growth – providing we don’t just beat ourselves up with it as I discussed in an earlier post. But this pain is nothing compared to the slow, inexorable, quiet despair of living a meaningless life because we don’t have the courage to take the responsibility and choose. A close second to this despair, that makes it all worse, is one’s disappointment in one’s self, deep down, for not having the courage to take this responsibility.