A Sense of Meaning
One of the most inspirational people I have ever known is Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany in World War II. He was a scientist. He was terribly inquisitive and understood scientific methodology, and he wondered what enabled some of the prisoners who were subject to such terrible treatment in the death camps to survive. He studied the survivors and attempted to understand what enabled these people to survive, unlike the hundreds of thousands who perished. Was it their physical health? He found physical health to be secondary. Was it their survival skills? Secondary. Was it their intelligence? Secondary. He explored every alternative hypothesis. He finally concluded they were all secondary factors.
The overriding primary factor was very simple—they had a sense of the future, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning. Based on his studies, he wrote his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Those survivors were people who had a sense that some important work was yet to be done. He spoke about it as detecting rather than inventing their meaning.What is life asking of me? What is my responsibility in this situation? What kind of future contribution can I possibly make? By asking and answering these kinds of questions, they were strengthened and emboldened toward those purposes. And it enabled these people to survive. I’ll never forget the language he used: “Our wounds would heal.” This sense of the future somehow triggered the healing mechanisms and immune system inside their minds and bodies.The sense that they could make a better future gave them a deep feeling of hope. He quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a ‘why’ can live with any ‘what.’”