Find the “Why” in Life
By Pat Hammond
Recently, I came across a book I read nearly a decade ago during my Chaplaincy internship at Dougherty Hospice House. The book, Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, had a profound effect on me and my journey into ministry.
Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria in 1905. He earned an M.D. and PhD. specializing in neurology and psychiatry. When Hitler occupied Austria, Frankl had an American visa waiting for him, but rather than immigrate to the U.S., Frankl stayed in Austria with his aging parents, knowing full well that sooner or later they would be sent to a concentration camp.
In telling of his experience in four concentration camps during World War II, Frankl says, “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again” (3). Frankl was a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalytical theory prior to his imprisonment in the concentration camps. While imprisoned, Frankl wondered why some people are able to survive the brutality and horror of concentration camps while others die or killed themselves.
Frankl’s answer was that some people are able to find a “greater meaning.” While all the physical and political freedoms may be taken away from an individual, no one can take away the freedom to choose the way in which a person will face their life. To restore a person’s inner strength one must first realize some future goal. Frankl refers often to Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Frankl understood that what was needed to survive in a concentration camp was “a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us” (76-77).
Frankl believed there are three sources of meaning – love (“by experiencing something or encountering someone”), work (“by creating a work or doing a deed”), and suffering (“by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering”). While the first two of this “meaning” triad make sense it is often difficult to understand how suffering can be a source of meaning. Frankl found that while we cannot avoid suffering ,we can choose how to cope with suffering and find meaning in the suffering and therefore move forward with renewed purpose. “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning . . .” (113).
Pastoral care is about listening, supporting, and encouraging. In many ways it is about helping others find the meaning of their life. For in finding what is meaningful, we find the why to live for.
On this journey with you,
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 5:58