My wife and I went on a date and saw the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart at the IFC theater in Manhattan. It’s been a while since I last saw it and had forgotten how good the movie is with its multiple messages. The gist of the movie is that the main character, George, who is a good honest man, sacrifices his own dreams, desires and money to benefit his family and the community. When he feels he lost it all he contemplates suicide. He is then guided by an angel who helps him to reflect on his true worth and meaning of his life.
So what is the meaning and purpose of life? Several years ago I was fortunate enough to pick up the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl tells about his life in the holocaust and the struggles and unimaginable horrors that the prisoners endured. Dr. Frankl recognized that many who were able to survive, including himself, maintained a certain mindset that kept them alive. They had a will or driving force to stay alive whether it was to see loved ones again or to complete something in their life. A person’s will to live was the one thing that could not be taken away.
Most often it was not about the self at all but about others. Many of the prisoners shared their food rations, made others laugh or played games with each other to get through it all. It was not just surviving but surviving together that may have made the difference.
Viktor Frankl goes on to develop a new school of psychological thought called “Logotherapy” which is a meaning centered psychotherapy. The basic principle of “Logotherapy” is that we are purpose-driven creatures, with innate skills, talents, and interests, as well as experiences. When we lose that sense of meaning we go into an “existential vacuum” or become emotionally numb and that’s when we are overcome with guilt, pain and depression.
I was in a leadership training a while ago and they introduced something called “The World Sucks” chart that looked like a funnel shape (Image shown at the bottom of this blog). At the narrow end on the bottom was the word “you” and the most wider side on the top was “the world.” It resembled Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with basic needs on the bottom and more existential needs as you go up. The idea was that the closer one is to the “you” the more one was in the “suck-hole” or place of neediness or disparity. The key was obviously to get further away from the “suck-hole” in order to get more fulfillment out of life. I know, for myself, that when I help other people I get a sense of goodness and pride in myself. I notice my energy level rise and I want to keep up the momentum. When I just do for myself the feeling is often more short lived.
So how does one find meaning? Meaning can be discovered in multiple ways including what one does creatively, through their attitudes as well as in their experiences. I know that in my own exploration of what it means to be a man, a passion grew to work with others to find themselves. So sometimes there is meaning in suffering. In the most problematic situation there is purpose waiting to be born.
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