Man’s Search for Meaning/Hit Me Like a Skittle Bus

Hello there! Been a while hasn’t it? I would apologise for my erratic posting schedule, but trust me, you really don’t want the alternative. It would go the same way as my regular phonecalls with my Mum do. We both insist on asking each other “any news?” every single day. Spoiler: there is never any news. We’re both living lockdown Groundhog Day. Still, we live in hope.

Oh, that reminds me. Mum, I know you’re reading this.

…Any news?

I came on here to enthuse about a book I’ve read this past week that hit me like a bus. In a good way, though. A bus made of marshmallows that was full of Skittles and puppies, and suchlike.

The book isn’t a new one by any stretch – it’s been around since 1946, so it’s taken me long enough to get around to reading it (haw haw), but I’m so glad I did. Sometimes the perfect book comes into your life at exactly the right time, which is precisely what happened for me with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Right now, the covid-y carousel of horror that is the news and the raging wheely bin fire that is social media offer very little in the way of comfort. Pair that with repetitive, rainy, locked-down days and no guarantee of life ever returning to (I’m starting to hate this word) “normal”, and you’ve got yourself a potent recipe for hopelessness.   

Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and philosopher survived four (four!) different concentration camps during World War Two and still managed to emerge from the nightmarish experience with a strengthened conviction that there is meaning to be found in life, in spite of even the most painful experiences. Man’s Search for Meaning is a testament to this, and is split into two parts. The first documents what he went through in the concentration camps, and the second is more philosophical, going into more detail about his theories and beliefs. Both are fantastic.

There is no way I can do his writing justice here, but I feel compelled to share the love for it, so that’s what I’m going to do! I suppose you could say that I find meaning in the task…

Anyway, here are some of the key take-aways from this wonderful book that resonated with me:

Happiness is a by-product, not a goal.

Frankl believed that modern society’s obsession with pursuing happiness is senseless. He saw happiness as a result of doing or experiencing something meaningful, not an end in itself. He believed that searching for happiness for its own sake is like trying to push your way into a room via a door that only opens outwards. Man loved an analogy.

Meaning is individual and situational.

He wrote that asking “what is the meaning of life?” is akin to asking a master chess player which one move is the best chess move. It would be impossible to answer. The best move depends entirely on the situation, as well as to the unique person the situation is happening to. The issue, he said, lies in the question itself. It isn’t our place to ask what the meaning is in a given experience, day, or lifetime. We’re approaching it the wrong way round. Frankl instead encourages us to realise that life is asking questions of us every moment of every day. The future isn’t ours to know. Our responsibility is to think about what life is asking from us right now. It’s how we answer, whether that’s verbally, in action, or in attitude, that gives us our sense of meaning.

There are 3 main ways meaning can be found.

These are through:

  • Action/work. By work, I mean what you focus your energy on, not necessarily what pays the bills. Although the two kinds of work don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
  • Experience e.g through appreciating nature or loving others.
  • Suffering. Not suffering for its own sake, though. If you can do anything to alleviate it, then that’s what should be done, but in cases where the suffering is unavoidable, meaning can be found by the acceptance and endurance of it.

Life’s transience is what gives it meaning.

If we were to live forever, we would never do anything of note. There wouldn’t be any need to. There would be no legacy to leave behind, because we ourselves would never be leaving. As we age, rather than mourning that we have fewer pages left on our calendars, we should instead rejoice in the ever expanding catalogue of actions we’ve taken, choices we’ve made and things we’ve experienced. Every second, we make choices, and everything filed away into the past becomes permanent and unchangeable. No one can erase us from this fixed past. We are safe and saved there.

There is so much more to Man’s Search for Meaning than I’ve shared here, but if this way of thinking tickles your pickle (my pickle was well and truly tickled), then I definitely recommend a read. I wasn’t expecting something written by a holocaust survivor to be anywhere near this hopeful and life affirming.

I stumbled across it as a Daily Deal on Kindle a while back, and I’m incredibly glad I did. I’ve since listened to the audiobook version of a series of lectures Frankl also wrote on the same topic called Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, which is more philosophical than biographical, but just as absorbing. If you, like me have been feeling a bit “blah” lately, you might find both works helpful too. If you do end up reading either, come back here and let me know how you got on!

In the meantime, links to both books below:

Man’s Search for Meaning

Yes to Life in Spite of Everything

Hope you’re looking after yourself. Until next time..whenever that is! xx

“What happened?”
“He asked what the meaning of life was.”
“Ahh…a rook-ie mistake…”
“Sigh…why are you like this?”