#41 Reflections: Favorite Lessons From ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’
Man’s Search For Meaning is a memoir written by Holocaust concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist, Victor E Frankl. To read more about the book, check out my previous blog post.
Although I had mixed feelings about this book, there was definitely a few lessons that served as good reminders.
1. Everyday purpose
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life daily and hourly…Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Sometimes, we tend to constantly search after for this huge life purpose that we overlook the daily grind. Sometimes there’s almost a pressure to finding out your life mission, your dream career, etc. The reminder that each moment has purpose to it gives one a sense of contentment that each of our lives, the way they are today are capable of having meaning if we just make a few subtle mindset shifts.
As Muslims, this is especially easy for us as we know our over-arching purpose in life is to be worshipers (Quran 51:56). The way to make this life-purpose something that we are working towards daily is by giving every action an intention of fulfilling the over-arching purpose of worship. It means turning all the acts you do into acts of worship by being intentional about them, from the mundane tasks of house chores and eating to the bigger tasks like working on a project, etc.
2. Needing tension
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. What man needs is not homeostasis but what I call “noö-dynamics,” i.e., the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.
A lot of the times we tend to chase ease and comfort assuming that they will give us happiness. But when we think back to the moments we felt most accomplished and most fulfilled in, there was always a bit of difficulty involved. Maybe not the level of suffering that comes from the concentration camp, but there is always a bit of difficulty and hardship you needed to overcome to feel that euphoria and fulfillment that one is constantly chasing.
The lesson is to remember that there will never be growth and fulfillment if you are completely in ease and comfort all the time. Don’t make ease and comfort your aim, because there is no guarantee that it will bring happiness. Make growth your aim and embrace all the tension that comes with it because that is where you will really find contentment.
3. You are not your environment
It’s very easy to blame the environment you are in, the childhood you had, the corrupt government you are under, but what Victor Frankl’s experiences clearly showed is that nothing but you and your actions can be held accountable for what type of person you are today.
In the concentration camp… in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.
We all have the potential to grow beyond the conditions we have been put in. It all comes down to your own mindset and how you see the situation — you can either become a victim to it or rise above it. And once you rise above it, there is no doubt that your conditions will change. Because doesn’t Allah tell us: Indeed Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. (13:11)
4. Meaning is found beyond you
One thing clearly shown is that it is impossible to find meaning within yourself alone. As in, it is not possible to find a purpose that is about yourself alone. Meaning can only be gained when it is greater than yourself, by either finding it in people around you are in a life goal that is greater than just yourself.
It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.
That is why the race for more power and money and fame will never bring meaning because they are all in pursuit for the Self. That is why books such as this are so famous because people are living relatively comfortable lives but still feel completely unfulfilled. We live in a society that focuses on fulfilling the Self’s desires above anything else and that society is still one of the most unhappiest societies to date.
As Muslims too we tend to forget our own faiths principles and fall into this idea of putting yourself above everything else. Yes, taking care of yourself is important, but it cannot stop there. We have been put on this earth as Khulafa (stewards) of it.
In actual fact, the best way to take care of yourself is to be in service to other people. Plentiful evidence exists that shows how volunteering and service actually helps people with negative thoughts and depression.
The perfect example of this is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He was a man who had very little, a man whose days were in continuous service to people. And a man who was never seen without a smile (Hadith).