Visionary psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said, “There is nothing in the world … that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in one’s life.”
Frankl came to this conclusion as he stared death in the face every day in Nazi concentration camps.
Today, many of us chase after happiness yet happiness eludes us. We have forgotten that it can’t be a goal in itself, happiness can only be a byproduct of living a meaningful life.
What, however, is meaning? Where do we find it?
These are the great questions of life. The answers are simple, yet complex. True for everyone, yet unique to each of us.
We’re here for a purpose: to serve others and make the world better. When we pursue this goal, we unearth meaning. When we ignore it, we find ourselves lost.
I’m very fortunate to be in a career that’s all about the celebration of humanity. As a teacher, I find meaning not only in my pursuit of truth but in embarking on this journey with others. Each young person is in the process of discovering their gifts, their passions and questioning how they can use them to make the world better.
The journey can be confusing, as there are many conflicting messages. Consumerism tells us that if we don’t have certain things, we’re less important. Others tell us that if we don’t have a certain look, we no longer have a voice. Some will say that certain gifts are valuable and others aren’t. We’re even told to not only judge ourselves harshly but to judge others as well.
Perhaps the clearest advice regarding the essence of meaning came from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who said, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love.”
Regardless of our intentions, however, there are times when we’ll hit roadblocks and setbacks. We’ll ask ourselves, “Why is this happening to me?”
In contemplating this issue, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “There is one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
This thought resonated with Frankl. When facing each day, he was able to somehow find meaning to the unimaginable suffering he endured. He was able to find a why for his existence and this enabled him to find a way to survive, what he referred to as his “how.” For many, this purpose was a loved one. Though Frankl unfortunately lost the people who were most dear to him during those horrible years, he gifted the world with some of the most profound teachings ever known. His book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the greatest of the 20th century.
The pursuit of suffering without meaning doesn’t serve a purpose, but the hardships and challenges we inevitably go through can be life’s greatest teachers. When we find meaning to our sufferings, they, perhaps more than anything else, give depth to our character.
Living a meaningful life is not only essential to finding happiness, it’s the key to success. The world needs our gifts, it needs our integrity and our respect for others. Gains in life made contrary to these values are fleeting and short termed, regardless of how attractive they may appear at the moment. Simply giving our best effort out of love for other human beings is the key to achieving lasting greatness.
Our lives have meaning. The more that we embrace this truth, the more we discover the goodness within ourselves. As we do so, life becomes a joyful adventure, regardless of our circumstances.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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