Meaning is the why that brings forth the strength to accept and grow from the inescapable suffering of being alive.
Humans are meaning-making creatures.
Biologically, our nervous systems are designed in such a way that the brain automatically organizes incoming information into configurations that make sense, whether based in reality or not.
Meaning also provides a sense of mastery over the unknown: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to put them in an order where we feel empowered rather than helpless.
Even more important, meaning gives birth to values and, therefore, to a moral code of behavior, answering the existential question that sits at the root of our maturation over our lifetime: Why am I alive? This purpose then guides our everyday actions.
A Crisis of Meaning
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of the perennial bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning, dedicated his life’s work to demonstrating that meaning is foundational to our peace, happiness and ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Decades ago, Frankl pointed out observations of our cultural decline in meaning:
“More people today have the means to live but no meaning to live for.”
Without meaning, we lack a plot in our story, and the ability to feel connected to a purpose bigger than today’s immediate and never-ending expectations.
There are several factors eroding away at our sense of meaning, including our cultural values, an unprecedented era of mobility, deteriorating quality of relationships, and a pace of life that far exceeds the ability to be present to deeply experience any given moment or loved one.
We can become caught up on the hedonic treadmill of doing and achieving, neglecting our purpose, well-being and relationships in favor of social acceptance and gratification.
Eventually, unless adversity helps us course-correct, we suffer much regret over our misplaced values.
A paradigm shift is necessary to find fulfillment and meaning in our efforts, in our work, in our relationships.
Frankl imparts this wisdom in the introduction of Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”
Avoidance of Suffering & Death
Unlike many Eastern cultures and prior civilizations, modern Western culture does not value suffering or death, in fact we are terrified of it, and operate in a cultural fog of denial, as if we can and should do all that we can to avoid discomfort and mortality.
Within Frankl’s work, he identified what he called The Tragic Triad, recognizing that we must accept and embrace the inescapable suffering associated with being alive, asserting the reality that all humans will encounter: pain, guilt and death as part of a complete life.
Adversity is inevitable and inherent in our human existence, and the essence of our existence… “only in the face of guilt do we improve, and only in the face of death is it meaningful to act.”
Frankl spoke openly about embracing death as the contrast that brings us to life:
“The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfill it, to use our time and occupy it. Death gives us a compulsion to do so. Therefore, death forms the background against which our act of being becomes a responsibility.”
Or as the poet Rilke put it more succinctly: “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”
As Jonathan Haidt describes in The Happiness Hypothesis, we simply can’t stop ourselves from creating an evolving story that integrates our past, present, and anticipated future into a coherent life myth that reinforces our beliefs and values.
“Adversity may be necessary for growth because it forces you to stop speeding along the road of life, allowing you to notice the paths that were branching off all along, and to think about where you really want to end up…Some people seize these opportunities, rebuilding beautifully those parts of their lives and life stories that they could never have torn down voluntarily.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has gotten a lot of attention since it was added as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980.
This shift inadvertently associated traumatic experiences with a sense of inevitability, a helplessness, and a victim mentality. The presumption became: post-traumatic stress always follows traumatic experiences.
As it turns out, only a small percentage of people develop PTSD following trauma.
On average, around two-thirds of us exhibit what’s known as post-traumatic growth instead.
What makes the difference? Research indicates that the primary factor that allows most of us to move through trauma without complicated long-term symptoms is the ability to make sense of tragedy and then find benefit in it.
Coping with Adversity
When we experience a crisis, we cope in three primary ways:
- Active coping – or taking direct action to address the problem, which can be beneficial, but can also be a way of avoiding acceptance of the new reality if we are trying to fix the unfixable.
- Avoidance coping – including denial, distraction and self-medication designed to suppress the pain or panic, which of course only works temporarily.
- Reappraisal – or doing the internal work of reflection and meaning-making; authoring the silver lining narrative.
The fear of pain and suffering drives us to avoid through control or denial, paralyzing us in the very place we do not wish to be, and prolonging our suffering.
The easiest way to overcome that anxiety is not a futile attempt to get rid of risk or pretend it’s not real; the solution is in making the risks worth something. When we have a cause, a mission, some deeper purpose associated with the challenge in front of us, we act.
It’s in that foundation of meaningful purpose that we look for the upside in our experiences, and when we find these benefits, we author a new chapter in our life story, integrating the experience in such a way that the pain becomes empowering rather than debilitating.
We are stronger for it.
This creates a virtuous cycle whereby we gain deeper meaning from adversity, and then that meaning carries through the next challenge.
In fact, research shows that suffering can be integral in nurturing greater compassion, balance between self and others, reappraisal and adaptation, and triggering changes in life direction that reflect an awareness and commitment to our personal values.
As we look now toward creating more meaning in our lives, and thereby reinforcing our resilience in the face of adversity, Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, reminds us that much like happiness, meaning cannot be created. It is a byproduct of how we live our lives.
“Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it.”
Frankl specifically put forward three sources of meaning, giving us a framework to recognize and appreciate what already brings us meaning, as well as begin to reckon with the gaps between what we seem to care about based on our time and effort, and what we actually hold dear.
What we create. Our contributions to others and the world through our work, talents and service. These creative values consist of achievement of tasks such as painting a picture or tending a flowerbed.
What we experience. These experiential values consist of encountering another human, such as a loved one, or by experiencing the world through a state of receptivity such as appreciating natural beauty.
What stand we take in the face of suffering. These attitudinal values speak of the potential to make meaningful choices in the midst of adversity. Everything can be taken away from a person but the freedom to choose one’s attitude.
These could be simplified down to purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.
“The zest and vitality of goal directed activities, the sweat of hard work and the joy of success, the excitement and satisfaction of engaging in intimate relationships, and the many personal experiences that give color, texture and richness to the tapestry of life are the raw materials for present meaning.” (Reker & Wong, Meaning and Purpose in Life and Well-Being)
As our world continuously draws us into chaos, meaningless transactional relationships, status symbols, and limiting expectations that have never reflected our true nature, we each have the everyday opportunity to opt-out, engage in purposeful contribution, connect deeply within vulnerability and love, and encounter the wonder and awe of this very moment of our lives.
This practice of meaning, of authoring our own narrative, underpins our resilience, affording us the opportunity to live passionately in respect to the unavoidable suffering and ever-pending finality of life.