Victor Frankl – Man in Search of Meaning
Victor Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist, and a secular Jew who barely knew
that he was Jewish. The Nazis made his identity clear to him when they
deported him to a concentration camp.
After the war, he wrote a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, in it;
Frankl describes what life was like for him after the war. After spending
time in the displaced persons camp, he landed in the United States and
opened a practice on the upper east side of Manhattan. As he had been a
world-famous psychiatrist, he put out his shingle, and his practice was
quickly filled. He explains, however, that the cases that he was now dealing
with were unlike any that he had ever seen before. A woman would come into
his office, and he would conduct the intake interview:
“Ma’am, how can I help you?”
“Well, Doc, I’m depressed.”
“I see. Is it your marriage?”
“No. That’s going well.”
“Is it your kids?”
“No, they’re fine.”
“Is it work?”
“No, that’s fine too.”
“Well, what is it? Why are you depressed?”
“I don’t know, Doc. That’s why I’m here.”
He describes that patient after patient would come in, depressed, but
without any attributable cause. No trauma. No loss of a loved one. No loss
of a job or income. His conclusion: these people were depressed because they
lacked meaning in life; they lacked direction and purpose. A 45-year-old man
would wake up and say to himself, “I am doing great. Making lots of money,
my company is flourishing, but what is it all about? Why do it? What is the
purpose of it all?”
Victor Frankl’s conclusion, from a psychiatric vantage point, is that man
without meaning will be depressed, and in fact, should be depressed because
at the core of his essence he is empty. The only hope for him is to find
meaning and purpose in his life. Only then will he achieve happiness.
Why Can’t Man Be Satisfied?
He is correct. The reason is because HASHEM made man for a higher purpose,
and gave him a nishamah, which won’t let man settle. It won’t allow him to
be just mediocre. It makes demands of him. It demands living life with a
purpose, it demands giving to others, it demands making significant
contributions, and if its needs aren’t met, it leaves him unhappy and haunted.
One of the paradoxes of life is that you can have everything and be poor, or
have nothing and be rich. But it isn’t only about attitude. It isn’t simply
an issue of appreciating what we have. It goes much deeper than that,
cutting into the very fabric of the human personality.
Man has two sides to him. When he meets the needs of both, he achieves a
state of balance and harmony. He is at peace with himself. When that comes
about, everything is beautiful. The sun is shining, the birds are singing,
and everything is wonderful. It may be raining outside, and you can’t pay
your mortgage, but it is OK, because things have meaning. You understand
life. You understand what you are doing here. And, you experience true joy
and fulfillment. You are happy.
The purpose of life isn’t happiness, and the Torah isn’t merely a “self-help
happiness guide.” But a direct outcome of leading a Torah lifestyle is that
you will be happy. The Torah is the guidebook to living a successful life.
It was written by the only One who truly understands man – his Creator. When
a person follows its ways, he is at peace with himself. Both sides have
their needs met, and the person is in synch with himself.
Allowing the Physical Side to Rule
However, when a person doesn’t follow the Torah’s guidelines for success,
invariably he allows the body to rule. For a while it is OK; he is busy
making his fortune and having fun. But part of him is unhappy and he just
can’t enjoy life — no matter what he has, no matter how good his lot. All of
the possessions in the world, all of the beauty in Creation, mean nothing to
him because at the core of his essence, there is a voice inside screaming
out its dissatisfaction.
“But, why aren’t I happy? Why don’t I feel fulfilled?” Just asking the
question is as telling as the answer. HASHEM created us for a destiny that
is greater than simply getting on, making a living, going about this thing
we call life. And because of this, I can’t be satisfied with just passing
time. I need more. Not more money or luxuries or cars. More meaning. More
substance. More significance. Part of me is saying, “I can’t believe that
HASHEM put me on this planet just to do the insignificant things that I do.
There has to be a higher purpose. There has to be some meaning to it all.”
If a person wants to live a meaningful, satisfying life, he needs to
understand himself. He must relate to the needs of his soul. The only way
that he can do this is by finding his mission in life, finding out why
HASHEM created him, and why HASHEM put him into this thing we call life.
The Activity that Brings Man the Most Happiness
Once a person understands himself, he can engage in the experience that
brings him the most happiness – growth. That is what HASHEM put us in this
world to do. That is the purpose of all of Creation. And HASHEM implanted
within us all of the drives and instincts that we need to grow.
The challenge of life is that there is the other part of me. There is a
physical part of him that calls out with its needs, desires, and wishes. If
a person follows that voice, for a while he is at occupied, for a moment
he’ll find some satisfaction, but it quickly leaves him more empty than before.
HASHEM Wants Us to Be Happy
HASHEM wants us to be happy. HASHEM created everything to give of His good
to us. Even though the purpose of life is our station in the World to Come,
HASHEM wants us to be happy in this world as well. For that reason, He
created so many amenities strictly for us to enjoy. But to enjoy them, a
person must learn to use this world properly.
When man follows the Torah’s path, he grows, he accomplishes, and he
achieves his purpose in Creation – and he is happy. In that state, he can
enjoy all of the beauty of this world. It doesn’t distract him; it is a tool
that he uses to further serve his Creator and enhance his growth. The
challenge of life is not to get lost, not to get so caught up on the here
and now that we forget that there is a tomorrow.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier and Torah.org
This is an excerpt from the new Shmuz on Life book: Stop Surviving, Start Living. It is powerful, thought provoking, and life changing. The book is available for purchase at Judaica stores, Feldheim.com and TheShmuz.com.