In my first post I mentioned a number of thinkers and writers who have influenced me: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the Buddha, Aristotle, the first Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Kurt Vonnegut. At the time I thought it would be nice to write about what I learned from each of them, but I’m already pedantic enough.
Nonetheless, in the last post I mentioned Frankl, which led me to re-read his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and marvel at it anew. So let me share a little of what I’ve learned from him.
Born in 1905 and trained as a medical doctor and psychologist, Frankl survived almost three years in Nazi concentration camps. That prolonged torment taught him that people do not primarily seek pleasure, as Freud held, but meaning. Pleasure seekers tended not to last long in the camps. (Consider how poorly Jeffrey Epstein coped with far less brutal conditions.) Those who retained a sense of purpose and meaning had better odds of surviving.
Frankl defines meaning in broad, indirect terms: it can consist of creating a work or doing a deed; experiencing something or encountering someone; or adopting a noble attitude toward unavoidable suffering. “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Although The Fabulous Wife approaches the definition from a different angle, I think she comes closer to the mark: everybody needs to feel useful.
The need for a purpose (and the worry that you have none) lies at the core of countless individual and societal problems. Certainly I feel the need for purpose. One of my concerns about retirement was that in giving up my job, I was giving up my main contribution to society, and hence my usefulness. (That was before I discovered the pleasures of irrelevance, which is another story.) Earlier in life, a perceived lack of purpose knocked me for long loops of depression, to the point where I wondered whether I might have a neurological imbalance. Reading Frankl assured me that what I suffered from was actually existential frustration (“noögenic neurosis”):
Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. . . . I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e. a tensionless state.
Sure enough, as I developed a sense of purpose I felt more stress, but my depression waned.
(Aside: I know first-hand how common depression is. Nonetheless, I wonder what percentage of people taking pills for it aren’t ill, but appropriately responding to the harsh truths of life, and by medicating themselves into a tensionless state are diminishing their ability to find their own right answer to life’s formidable challenges.)
We can also see the need for purpose on a societal scale. After the 2016 election, political scientists studied the white underclass that made Trump president. What motivated these voters? Was it economic uncertainty? For some, yes. Was it racism? For some, yes. But what Trump voters most had in common was anxiety about losing their place in society — becoming irrelevant to their own culture.
And then there are the sick ways authoritarians gain a sense of meaning: through hatred and violence. You may not have anything else going for you, but you have enemies and a community ready to lionize you for attacking. That’s not the “right answer” Frankl’s framework calls for; it’s the evil that nearly killed him. But the need for meaning is so powerful that many weak souls fulfill it by fetishizing cruelty.
You don’t need a grand purpose to make life meaningful, or an important job to be useful. There’s no need to be famous or rich. Just make life a little better for family, friends, and strangers each day . . . and you’ll be there.