Choosing Meaning

by Tom Swift

As the world marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in January, I was, as it happens, reading Man’s Search for Meaning. In Part II of his classic, world-over bestseller Viktor Frankl tells the story of a man, a doctor, he counseled who felt deep despair following the death of his wife. The man and his wife had been married for decades; two years after her death the man was still lost in his grief. Frankl asked the man a seemingly simple question: how would his wife be doing if she had instead outlived him? The man thought about it and said his wife would now be suffering severely. Frankl had pointed out that the man was, in essence, suffering in his wife’s place — he was shouldering the burden, sparing her.

We search for answers and we expect those answers will be profound, magical, momentous. So often even a slight change in how we choose to think about something alters everything. The man walked away from his session with Frankl with a means to cope: he still no doubt felt profound grief but his suffering now had meaning.

Frankl makes clear that one does not have to suffer to find meaning. And, of course, thankfully, this is true. Yet when faced with unavoidable suffering — the man’s wife was not coming back to him, not in this physical world — we do have the capacity to try to make meaning from even unenviable circumstances. As Friedrich Nietzsche said in his oft-repeated line (and as Frankl quotes him thusly), “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

That Frankl somehow found meaning himself while enduring life in Auschwitz and other concentration camps does not mean that this is necessarily an easy task for those of us who will never know such conditions. It’s not useful to say that because Frankl could find meaning then we automatically should be able to now. Suffering distorts our view. Let’s be gentle.

But may we also be aware enough to seek the most constructive answers we can when life forces us to ask, “why me?”