Meaning Makes Life Bearable

Treat Thompson



Mr Gauguin's Heart - Isabelle Arsenault

Waking up is easy when there are things I love to do waiting for me.

They turn my clueless wandering into a frantic rush.

All of a sudden, I need my time; I need my existence to be drawn out; I need a way to stall the clock because I need to live; I need to be on Earth to do those things.

I resent any second not spent doing those things—that’s a visit to purgatory.

Those things make every day feel right. Without a doubt, I know everything is going the way it should.

They make life so bearable it’s worth living.

Viktor Frankl’s experience surviving the holocaust takes that point to the extreme.

Any attempt at fighting the camp’s psychopathological influence on the prisoner … had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own.

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

But that’s a lot to ask for—finding enough meaning to float through life.

However, it’s easy to stumble on after realizing our lives can’t be replaced by anyone.

At that point, we can’t throw them away.

Whether it’s our goals, art, or family, we have unique responsibilities to the world.

I remember two cases of would-be suicide, which bore a striking similarity to each other. Both men had talked of their intentions to commit suicide. Both used the typical argument—they had nothing more to expect from life.

In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was his child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else, any more than another person could ever take the place of the father in his child’s affections.

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love.

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl goes as far as saying that losing sight of our unique responsibility to the world ended lives.

Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.

The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness—and thus the voice of his dream was right after all.

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience. In his opinion, the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas.

As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The most strong-willed people always have something to look forward to.

Hopelessness begins when we start looking to the past for answers.

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts.

In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

It’s why Frankl and his friend made a game of imagining the future everyday.

I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation.

—Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning