Friday, January 23, 2004

The Search for Meaning

The Search for Meaning

Except for a day or two when relatives drop by to visit, Chinese New Year is usually a relatively quiet affair for me. Sometimes the break is a good chance for me to catch up on my reading. I remember six years ago, I read a book by Viktor E. Frankl called Man's Search for Meaning over the Chinese New Year holidays. It proved to be one of the most important books I've ever read.

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) was an eminent psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book is partly a memoir of his experiences at the concentration camps and partly an introduction to his groundbreaking school of psychology called logotherapy.

The story of his experiences in the brutal Nazi concentration camps is a heart-wrenching one: separated from his family members with no knowledge of their fate (his father, mother, brother and wife all died at the gas chambers), forced to endure daily hard labour on a starvation diet and threatened with the ever-present possibility of death anytime, it was a miracle indeed that he managed to survive those three years of incessant mental and physical torture.

Prisoners were literally stripped of everything that they had; they were herded everywhere like cattle and shoved into multi-tiered plank shelves that served as bed; they were brutalized, insulted and reduced to shrivelled husks of meaningless existence. Viktor Frankl saw how many of his fellow inmates just dropped dead not because they were too weak or too sick to carry on but because they reached a point where they simply "gave up" on life.

Those who survived were those who managed to find a some kind of meaning to their suffering. In Nietzsche's words: "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how".

To bear with the intolerable conditions of living in the camp, prisoners learned to "look forward" to the most trivial comforts as a great joy and blessing: like the discovery of a tiny piece of pea at the bottom of one's daily ration of watery soup or the rare opportunity to de-louse before going to bed.

Dr Frankl's experiences in the concentration camp helped him to formulate his psychological theory of logotherapy which rests on the belief the meaning that a person attaches to his life experiences is important for his emotional, pscyhological and physical well-being. One must find some kind meaning, even in suffering. It is this meaning that keeps one going.

The meaning that one attaches to one's life is a personal thing and could be different for everyone. For some, the meaning could be religious in nature; for others, it could be the realisation of an in-born talent in a particular field. It is an existential quest that we owe ourselves to pursue. Sometimes "meaning" is a journey and not a destination: it is the act pursuing meaning that gives life its meaning.

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