Meaning

I don’t usually quote Nietzsche. His ideas and attempts to live up to them were a reaction to the situation of his times and society. Attempts to replicate them today are usually childish, pathetic or delusional. However, there is one statement that does remain in my mind. It was a quotation used by Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. 

A man who knows why can endure almost any how.

Frankl was an Austrian Jew trying to survive in the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. The ideas and philosophy that had occurred to him in prewar Vienna crystallized in these conditions. Frankl had identified the key disease of the developed world. The lack of meaning people saw in their lives.

For most of human and natural history, the aims of life were harsh and simple, survival and security. But after the mass production revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries this problem was largely solved in the developed world. Yet labour and the virtues it engendered remained essential to both an individual’s and society’s well being.

In the concentration camp, Frankl saw the full power of meaning. A camp inmate could commit suicide by simply walking up to the electric fence surrounding the camp. It was illegal for the other inmates to stop him. The only chance to save lives was to prevent people from wanting to die. Some people kept up hope of what they would do after they left the camp. But this was a fragile hope as the war dragged on year after year and people died all around. There was always a spike in deaths immediately after  Christmas and new year when many holes failed to materialize. What lasted were higher purposes. A man who had family waiting for him in another country found ways to cope. A man whose life work was a symphony which would be lost with him found ways to survive. Finally for those without such support, meaning had to be found in the suffering itself. To rise above surroundings and actualize values was the meaning of a martyr.

In Syria, amid the bombing and massacres, some people found the will to collect books and open a library where children could read even as schools shut down. The power of meaning continues to permeate lives.

Unfortunately the one thing a middle class life does not afford is a meaniing. Survival and basic safety is taken care of. Dignity less so and purpose not at all.

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