The Search for Meaning
Today I was reading an excerpt from Viktor Frankl’s wonderful book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
I first read the book in the early 60s as the result of a recommendation by a psychiatrist friend of mine John Roberts (see ‘Disordered Lives’ John Roberts and Douglas Hooper 1967) and it had a profound effect on me.
As I remember it, Frankl is relating his experience of being in a Nazi concentration camp and reflects, quite naturally, on finding meaning. All around him people were dying as a result of Nazi atrocities but, he observed, some just simply turned over and died. So why did he survive that terrible experience and those others, not killed by the Nazis, didn’t survive? He concludes that it was because he had found meaning and, in his case, the meaning was by thinking about his family, and his loved ones, as they might be, in the present. He didn’t know if they were living or dead, but it was important to his thinking that they were living now. In other words, in spite of his miserable existence, he had meaning. Those who turned over and died he suggests did not have that meaning.
Immediately of course many people would want to use the examples of religious belief or some philosophy as their answer to finding meaning and, yes, I have met the isolated, the chronically ill, and the dying who have been buoyed up by such beliefs but there are other factors involved too.
Having meaning can arise however from all kinds of activities but there are different levels, A hobby, doing some sort of administration, writing a blog (!) gives a level of meaning to life, but it is really only when human interpersonal relationship becomes involved that meaning carries with that important element of depth.
The club, the organisation, group activity, yes and even sometimes daily work takes the person up to a new level. Connecting with people on a face to face level leading to things like congratulation, appreciation, thanks, engagement, questioning, evaluation, all giving that sense of purpose and meaning. Even a measured amount of stress is beneficial so long as the other positive elements are not lost in the process. So those who are unemployed, shut in, aged, geographically isolated have less of a chance to know this element of meaning – they might be Frankl’s ‘turn over and die’ people but they are likely also to be the depressed, and the regular attenders at medical centres. The Marmot Report ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’ (2010) highlighted how social interaction was crucial to good health and the work of the Campaign to End Loneliness has shown that loneliness and isolation have the same physical dangers as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Since the elderly are more likely to experience this isolation and loss of meaning it could be argued that organised social interaction of some form is not just a useful form of leisure activity for people who like that sort of thing but should be seen as an essential prerequisite to accompany the many benefits society provides for them, and thus enable them to be more healthy at the same time.
Viktor Frankl’s experience, however, points to something more fundamental, namely that it was the experience of love within the family which gave him ultimate meaning. I hope that he would be willing to define ‘family’ in wider terms today, but to concentrate on the essence of what he was saying is to focus on how love and commitment enable us to be truly human and give us that meaning which we all need. Of course being human is also a problem for us, it is a flawed humanity which can create just as much problems within relationships as it solves. However not to take the risk of creating such relationships deprives us of that deeply satisfying feeling of meaning.
Our problem in todays world is that we don’t have the time or , perhaps it is the desire, to take that risk, but not to do so has repercussions on our feeling of personal meaning and therefore our well being too. This must have relevance just as much to those who are elderly as it does to the young. Giving up on creating deep relationships is, to put it plainly, nothing short of death!
So there is a clear need here for counselling but the role of voluntary organisations is crucial here too in being enabled to provide opportunities and occasions for deep meaningful social contacts. The end result will therefore be better health and also that sense of meaning which we all crave.