I want to tell you a story about a brilliant young medical student who studied neurology and psychiatry. He was born in Vienna, Austria 1905 and corresponded with Sigmund Freud when he was just a boy. His name was Viktor Frankl.
In 1938, Viktor was working in Vienna, establishing suicide prevention centers for adolescents when the Anschluss happened. The Nazis annexed Austria and declared them part of the Reich.
Viktor, who was Jewish, knew the threat the Nazis posed and he applied for a visa to take his wife to the United States, which he was granted, in 1941. He continued to work, and risked his life and career by purposely misdiagnosing mental patients so they would not face extermination. Eventually, he came to understand that he was in very grave danger and that he would soon have to make a decision.
His choice was stark: flee to the security of America and continue to build his astonishing career or stay and help those who suffered. If he went to America, he and his wife would be safe, but he would have to leave his elderly parents behind. He would have to abandon them, with all the other Jews, to their fates.
Viktor decided to stay. He watched his sister flee to the protection of Australia, but his brother Walter, his parents and his wife all remained together, and were eventually deported to concentration camps. In the camps, Viktor took on task of acclimatizing prisoners to the shock and horror of their new realities. He could not prevent the Nazis from imprisoning the Jews, but he could, and did, do his best to help them survive.
Viktor’s wife, his brother and his parents all died. Viktor survived, and he wrote down his experiences in a book originally called Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp, but published in 1959 in english as Man’s Search for Meaning.
The message of the book is this: happiness is a sensation of the moment. You are hungry, you eat. You feel happy. You want something, you get it. You are happy. You desire something, you have your desire. You are happy.
Happiness is also fleeting. It lasts only for the moment, and then you must search for a new desire to fulfill. The pursuit of happiness can never be achieved, because happiness will always linger out of grasp. It’s always one desire away.
Meaning is what gives life purpose. The sense that you exist as part of something greater and more significant than yourself. Viktor endured unbearable hardships in the camps, and he witnessed unspeakable horrors, but always, he had the sense that he had a purpose. That his life had meaning. He was there to help others endure.
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Happiness is about taking. It’s about having. It’s about your own personal desire and fulfilment. Meaning is about giving. It’s about responding. It’s about other people.
Having meaning in your life is what makes the inevitable suffering that life brings bearable. Knowing that you exist as part of something greater than yourself. One of the most meaningful things any person can do is become a parent. Having a child connects you to the past and the present and the future like nothing else. Babies are completely and utterly helpless and require intense care, and the work of guiding a child from infancy through adulthood will not always make parents happy. There is nothing happy about being up at 3 AM with a toddler vomiting on the carpet and the baby crying to be fed. But it doesn’t matter. Happiness is not relevant at moments like that. Those children NEED you. They matter. They are the reason you exist, and in meeting your obligations and responsibilities as a parent, you achieve a sense of fulfillment and meaning that cannot be matched by the mere satisfaction of material desires.
Does having children make you happy? Not really. But happiness isn’t the point.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Western cultures have become fixated on the “happiness” part of that equation, and seem to have forgotten that we need a reason to be happy. There is more to life than happiness.
A life well lived is a life filled with meaning, and a day spent giving to others. Today is one of those days where I’m not particularly happy about the laundry piled up and waiting and the floors needing mopping and the dust bunnies threatening revolution under the bunkbeds, but I have no doubt that my life has a purpose and that ultimately, the daily act of caring for others is what leads to happiness. My life is motivated not by a desire for physical things, but by love.
I say all this, having decided several hours ago, that I am not doing jack-shit in the house today. Fuck the dust bunnies, the laundry and the dishes. Today I’m reading Viktor Frankl and drinking wine. I’m gonna get that “I’m not happy look” when my husband gets home, and all I have to say to that is “I love you, honey. Order pizza for dinner. And remember that happiness isn’t the only thing in life worth pursuing.”
Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. Thomas Merton.
Lots of love,