I’m in the closing stages of finishing Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘ book. It is very likely you’ve read it or heard of it. The book chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps (Part 1), with a focus on the psychology of living under such conditions, and the psychotherapeutic method (Logotherapy) he developed that builds on those experiences (Part 2).
What follows isn’t a review of the book. Many of those exist and I find allocating a score or assessment of someone’s account of their life very difficult. What I will do is highlight an idea, encountered in the book, that resonated strongly with me.
I’ve struggled, as many have and do, to articulate my purpose in life. I didn’t grow up in a religious family or a family business in which some aspect of my purpose would have been defined for me. Yes, I absorbed the values of my family which have helped me navigate the everyday world, but existential questions (what is existence? what is the meaning of existence? what is the meaning of my existence?) were left to me to answer.
Subconsciously, for as long as I’ve grappled with the question of the meaning of my life, I’ve viewed it as a question that I am asking the world. What is my meaning? What is my purpose? I didn’t expect a voice from above (or below 👿) to specifically answer the question (although that could’ve been useful), but I guess I expected life would put some clues into my existence to help me intuit or deduce the answer. I was comfortable with the idea that each person had a different purpose, but I think I must have believed that my purpose was fated in some way and hence I was to discover it, rather than create it.
This perspective hasn’t been a total failure. I’ve been able to ascertain things that are important to me by observing more closely how I feel in certain contexts. When am I most engaged? When am I at my happiest? When do I feel most purposeful? When am I at my most creative? Professionally at least, this has helped me articulate my ‘why‘ far better than I have in the past. But this perspective is still very activity-based (what should I do?) and not so much who I should be (or try to be).
In this context, along comes Frankl, who turns the questioning on its head.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, 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.”
This shift disarmed me. Suddenly, the ‘world’ which I had assumed would give me the clues to my meaning (i.e. would answer my questions), became the questioner. And it was asking me difficult questions. What are you going to do with the people, experiences, contexts, situations, skills, quirks, desires, wants, sufferings and needs that you’ve been given? What are you going to make of them? What is the best version of you that can show up to these experiences? Life went from a cereal aisle (trying to pick which one is right for me?) to a job interview (what will you bring to this role?).
It will take me a while to process this shift and what it might mean in terms of how I articulate my purpose and meaning. One improvement I suspect will be articulating who I want to be, not just how I want to spend my time. However, the shift sits well with me. In a way it feels very familiar. As we get older, we’re asked (by society) to take increasing levels of responsibility over the conditions of our life. Dressing and cleaning ourselves, making friends, taking control of our education, choosing our work, engaging in the activities of daily life (e.g. chores), confronting challenges/setbacks/losses. As we slowly take charge of the ‘what’ in our lives, we’re developing the skills and insights necessary to answer the question of ‘who’ we want to be.
So I might take a break from questioning existence and see what it feels like to listen and try and understand what questions existence might be asking me.
2 thoughts on “Meaning in life is a question being asked of you, not the other way around”
I really enjoyed this post, and makes me want to re-read the book (It’s been a while since I read it).
I don’t know if you are aware, but there is second book of Viktor E. Frankl called “Yes To Life: In Spite of Everything.” It repeats some of the content from the previous book, but adds onto it in some places.
Thank you for the post!
Ahh – thanks for the heads up on the second book. In my personal notes on Search for Meaning, I indicated a desire to read more of his work.