MM #3 – Man’s Search For Meaning

(Quick Note: I wrote this article a few weeks before posting, and somehow it got lost in my computer: so it’s a bit out-of-date, but still something I’m thinking a lot about.)

I’m in one of those frustration holes today.

Sometimes I get really pissed off at myself: I wonder what I’ve achieved, what I could be doing by now, why I never do all the things I say I want to do, whether I’m just totally wasting my time. I feel heaps of self-doubt and worry that I’m missing something important. And the worst part is feeling like I’ve struggled with some of these same thoughts for years. To be honest, I feel a bit directionless.

And all of this reminded me of something that I’ve been wanting to write about.

I read an amazing book last month: ‘Mans Search For Meaning’, famously written by Victor Frankl after World War 2. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and a holocaust survivor who experienced life as a prisoner in Auschwitz. The book is partly a record of his time in the concentration camps, and partly a description of his ‘logotherapy’ practise.

It’s a short, deep and weighty book, with incredible insight and wisdom. I can’t recommend it enough.

Frankl’s main point is that the deepest need for any human being is the need for meaning. He argues that a great many of the difficulties that we struggle with, like depression, anxiety, and lack of growth, could be traced back to a general lack of meaning in our lives.

‘What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.’

‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The great task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.’

I like this. I like it a lot.

But it also made me realise something: when I left church, I left my meaning behind.

The thing is, Christianity is bloody excellent at offering meaning. The meaning of life is to love God, become more like Jesus, and share the good news with the world to save people from going to Hell.

Whatever you think about those beliefs, it’s definitely a solid and appealing meaning for a life: it encompasses huge themes, like life and death, eternity, spirituality, and makes them clear and certain. Not only that, but the story involves you: you’re not just an onlooker, but you have a mission to accomplish, and you have the Creator Of The Universe alongside you to guide your steps.

There’s a lot made of how personal the whole thing is: if I had a quid for every time I told somebody that ‘Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship with God’, I’d be writing this blog from my super-mansion in outer space by now. In other words, this is something you participate in directly, something vibrant and exciting and relevant to life right now.

I’m not commenting on the content of these beliefs: but holy crap alive, there is something attractive about these ideas (if you don’t think about Hell too much). If the deepest human need is for meaning, Christianity seems to offer a great solution: because if it’s true, then there is literally nothing more important in the Universe than this mission.

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I saw a friend of mine recently post a photo of a page from a Christian book he was currently reading. Looking at that photo gave me some kind of nostalgic comfort.

I don’t even remember what it was about, but the language was so familiar: it was the language of certainty. Every statement was sure and solid: a series of comments and ‘truths’ about God and life that you couldn’t argue with. Even though that kind of stuff really turns me off nowadays, there was still a part of me that recognised the appeal. It’s super-comforting to paint the world in black and white: to feel completely confident in what is true, what is false, what is good, what is evil, and what the purpose of everything is.

Reading Frankl’s book helped me to connect the dots a little more.

I wrote this passage down in my own journal:

‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’

In other words, for Frankl, the point of life is for each of us to figure out the meaning of our own lives.

No wonder I’ve been feeling a bit lost recently: as a Christian I didn’t really need to search for meaning in my life. Meaning had already been handed to me, by God no less. This is probably why it’s so difficult to leave a group like that, or why it’s awkward to watch friends leave when you’re in that group yourself: we have been taught that this is the central meaning of all life, and the stakes are huge, with eternal punishment waiting for anybody who doesn’t join our side by the end.

That’s not to say that I didn’t struggle with meaning while I was a Christian: I questioned and wondered about a lot of things. But when I left church behind, and slowly deconstructed my old faith, I also left behind that overarching meaning I’d been living with.

Now I think this is part of the point of life: to wrestle, to fight, to explore, to discover our own meaning. Even if that wrestle does lead you to religion, it will feel so much more real when it’s been earned, tested, and personally arrived at. I think that removing the wrestle actually removes a lot of what it means to live a full, thoughtful, powerful existence. And it’s not something you only do once; actually, I’m not sure if the wrestle is ever supposed to really end.

So I guess now I’m in that wrestling place: the cloudy, in-between phase. It’s tricky, scary, and uncertain. I’m feeling it in a big way today, and I suspect it might be the reason I’m having so many sleepless nights right now. But even just recognising that I’m in this place makes it all a bit easier to handle.

Anyway, if you’re in a place of frustration, self-doubt or confusion, wondering what the point of it all even is, you’re not alone today.

One more thought from the book to finish off: Frankl writes about three ways of finding meaning in life:

#1 : by creating a work or doing a deed.

#2 : by experiencing something or encountering someone.

#3 : by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The third one is especially deep and poignant, considering the weight of his experiences in Auschwitz. Hopefully these ideas might give you a decent starting point for your own thoughts. They definitely helped me. Whatever your beliefs and position in life, I recommend taking the time to give ‘Mans Search For Meaning’ a good solid read (multiple times).

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Comments : The Allowed is a safe space for people of all backgrounds who are wrestling with faith and doubt; many of whom may have had negative or traumatic religious experiences. Please be respectful and kind in any comments you make.

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