I’ve no doubt that every living person has a desire to find meaning in their lives, but are they – and YOU – searching in the wrong place altogether? And is the answer staring us in the face?
As those of you who have read my self help story will know, I am a big fan of the works of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and his focus on finding meaning as a way of coping with life’s ups and downs. Indeed, I can’t help but see meaning, or a lack thereof, in the beliefs and actions of people, both in my life and in the wider world.
But the quest for meaning is often one that people struggle with because it is not instantly apparent where one should look to find it. Some people look to wealth, some to power, some to the pursuit of pleasure at any cost, and some simply give up on it altogether.
Does any of this sound familiar?
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.
Frankl, a survivor of various Nazi concentration camps, suggested that meaning comes from two primary sources:
The love for and of another.
A cause greater than oneself.
I’m going to argue here that the second of these is simply an extension of the first and that, however you find a purpose in your life, it will always come back to the love between you and other spirits.
Just What Is A Cause Greater Than Oneself?
When Frankl talks about a cause in which you may discover meaning, I believe he is referring to a passion or energy through which you seek to change the world for the better. He concluded that such a cause has to be external to your own life; in other words, you cannot make your success or happiness the goal of your actions.
Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue.
He termed this self-transcendence which literally means beyond the self. This hypothesis flies contrary to the beliefs of many other great thinkers – such as Freud and Nietzsche – who suggest that the core route to human happiness and meaning is through internal pursuits such as pleasure and power.
Examples might be those traditional charitable causes such as helping to relieve poverty, heal the sick, prevent disease, or educate the young. Or they might be things such as the prevention of environmental degradation, the highlighting of political corruption, or even the awakening of people in society and the creation of true community.
Whatever the case may be, the end goal of a person’s involvement in the cause must not be their own meaning.
Hold up, so you’re saying that I can find meaning by giving myself to a cause, but that I can’t give myself to a cause on the basis that it will bring me meaning?
Yes, that’s precisely what I and Frankl are saying. You cannot simply find a cause, partake in it and expect your life to be flooded with joy and meaning. You must be willing to make sacrifices for the cause, you should hold a genuine passion for it, and you ought not to expect anything in return.
My argument, then, is this: whatever cause you dedicate yourself to, the reason for doing so always comes back to the love you have for another. But, as I tried to make clear with my emphasis above, this love is between you and other spirits, not necessarily between you and other people.
Yes, many causes are directed at the wellbeing of other human beings, but there are just as many, if not more, that focus on other life forms. The love that one can show towards the wider natural world is no less great than that which we are capable of showing to each other.
(I also want to point out that religious causes or any others than deal with realms beyond this world are also valid portals to meaning if they are based in love.)
So, whether you are working to build schools for impoverished children in the developing world or fighting to protect the essential marine ecosystems in our seas, you are displaying a love for spirits that are transcendent of your own.
Love is the highest goal to which man can aspire.
Viktor Frankl believed that the power of love to bring meaning into our lives was indefinably large and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Discovering that spirit to which you can give your full love is the key to living a fulfilling existence.
So this begs the question:
Should we be asking “who” not “what” is the meaning of life?