Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now!–Viktor Frankl
Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning belongs on a shelf with other short, powerful reads, such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. These are the sort of books you can read in one sitting, yet that condense an enormous amount of wisdom between their covers without wasting a single word. They put their longwinded neighbors to shame.
On rereading Frankl’s book for the first time in twenty years, I was struck by his insistence that we have three ways to discover meaning in life: by creating a work or taking an action, by experiencing something or encountering someone, and by our attitude toward unavoidable suffering. “For the meaning in life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” he writes. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
Therefore, there is no single “universal meaning” that we arrive at after finally breaking the code. Instead, there are multiple meanings of life–dozens, really, to suit us on our various paths and projects. And they cannot be just silly fixations, but they must take into consideration what life is asking of us and what our responsibilities are.
In our goal-driven society, it may seem that achievements are more important than relationships: Everyone is trying to be extremely useful. This is where Frankl gives the best sendup of ageism I’ve ever read: “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured,” he says. People tend to “overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.” Therefore, we should envy the elderly for their vast resources–not pity them!
I am particularly grateful to Frankl for his emphasis on the meaningfulness of suffering–“unavoidable” pain, that is, such as he faced in his years in the Nazi death camps. The way we respond to our misfortunes defines us. He quotes Rilke as saying, “How much suffering there is to get through!” Indeed, when we realize that suffering is nothing to be ashamed of and that it’s an unavoidable part of life, we come to terms with the fact that life is never going to be one big happy sunset the way it is in the movies.