When I was in high school I was obsessed with discovering the meaning of my life. Maybe this is a common high school obsession. I imagine it is, but most high school students are too egocentric to realize they are not unique in their search for discovery. I remember driving home from school one day and the answer ascending on me – the meaning of life, simply put, is to devote oneself to something greater than oneself. According to my teenage tendency towards egocentricity I believed this was a unique discovery. However, my fondness for spending my Friday evenings at used bookstores versus high school football games quickly corrected my mistake – my discovery was not unique.
Victor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor who founded logotherapy, was far ahead of me. Logotherapy theorizes that the most motivating force in our lives is to find meaning. Frankl, in his best-selling book, Man’s Searching for Meaning, which I came across in Half-Priced Books, describes the revelation he has thinking of his wife while in a Nazi concentration camp.
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”
This all fit. Finding meaning was the act of devoting oneself to a purpose greater than oneself. It was the opposite of self-obsession – trying to fill ourselves up in isolation, taking – versus emerging ourselves in the world, open to self-discovery.