Our Search for Meaning

If only holiday happiness was delivered with the certainty of holiday gifts.

Contrary to the joy that the holidays invite, some of us become painfully aware of the incongruity between the ideals of love, kindness, and connection and the reality of strained family relations, stretched finances, and feelings of isolation. There is nothing like the holidays to reflect the discrepancy between what we wish for in life and what we get.

At such times it is useful to remember our power to choose the way we respond to life. I recently re-read Man’s Search for Meaning, the late Victor Frankl’s legendary account of his experience as a Nazi concentration camp inmate. His book is equally well-known for its exposition of logotherapy, Frankl’s meaning-driven method of psychotherapy that was infused by his experience.

During his years of internment, ending only when his camp was freed by the Allies, Frankl endured a daily struggle for survival. He was challenged to find courage, dignity, and generosity within himself, and to choose them over self interest and despair. In Frankl’s view, the fundamental feature of humanity is the capacity to make that choice. He wrote, “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

Conversely, Frankl observed, “…in the bitter fight for self-preservation [a man] may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” Many of his fellow prisoners, not unlike their captors, surrendered to the animal within themselves. Frankl admitted his own failings: “…I have to confess here that only too rarely had I the inner strength to make contact with my companions in suffering and that I must have missed many opportunities for doing so.”

In Frankl’s view, one of the prime determinants of thriving in life, along with recognizing the power to choose our responses to it, is the capacity to envision a future worth living. He writes of counseling two would-be suicides. In both cases, the patients declared that they had nothing more to expect from life. Frankl helped each of them to acknowledge and appreciate what life still expected from them. For the first man it was the child he adored. For the second it was his unfinished scientific work and writing.

The idea of “what life expects from us” took root in my career counseling work several years ago when I observed that careers undertaken without the conscious intention to serve something greater than oneself were ultimately unfulfilling, not only for my clients but for those their work was intended to serve.

I first encountered the relationship between service and meaning in educator Parker Palmer’s idea that “true vocation joins self and service” and theologian Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” More recently, in an open letter to his daughters, President Barack Obama wrote, “It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.” It was this line of thought that led me from a 25-year career in organizational work to an “early-out” retirement so that I could find that place where mydeep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger – counseling. Paraphrasing Frankl, I find meaning in my life by helping others find theirs.

This year, if my clients’ winter gremlins surface and they’re left wondering if their faith in a divine, loving presence should be trusted, I will refer back to my now dog-eared copy of Man’s Search for Meaning to remind them, and myself, that our ability to choose life “in spite of everything,” to practice keeping our hearts open to our loved ones, and to serve life, may be the ultimate holiday blessing.