“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” [Friedrich Nietzsche].
One of the writers who has influenced my thinking and living these past several months has been Viktor E. Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who spent the years from 1942 to 1945 as a prisoner in a German concentration camp. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” describes that experience in all its horrific detail but also lays out a way to live when circumstances are at their worst.
Frankl quotes Nietzsche several times – ““He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” What exactly was he getting at? What does it mean to have a why to live for?
According to Frankl, in order to succeed in life, you have to have a future goal. That goal is what he calls the why or aim. He describes those who had that why were strengthened and able to bear the terrible how of their existence. “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.”
There is a connection between what he calls a naive hope and people`s ability to survive difficulty. The majority of the prisoners lived with the naive hope that they would be home by Christmas but as the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage were overcome with disappointment and died. True hope believed they would get out but did not hold firmly to dates and learned to find meaning in their day to day circumstances.
Frankl’s three key ideas (known as Logotherapy) were:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances – even the most difficult ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
What has helped me bring these ideas down to earth during my time of suffering and recovery have been these words of Frankl: It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what does life expects from us.
We have a choice during difficulty to throw the book at God, at life, at others, and stay mad or we can look for a reason to live, carry on and add value to others. If we do that, it helps give us a focus in spite of our circumstances. I didn’t say it was easy (and I know well as my body continues to heal from its broken state) but it does give a perspective that is worth considering.
How do you answer the “why” question? Why are you here?