Man’s search for meaning in a meaningless world

Dear Editor,

  Viktor Frankl, the late Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor who founded logotherapy, said in his seminal book, Man’s search for meaning, that he witnessed the prisoners around him taking their own lives while he was incarcerated at Auschwitz. Frankl opined that the men at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps could not find meaning in their subjective/objective lives for prolonging their existence. There was nothing, according to Frankl, in the psychological milieu or external circumstances of these men to inspire and sustain their will to hold on and continue being.

  Most of us who have lived long enough and those whose lives will be graced with longevity will attest to the fact that at some point during their lives they have and will question the significance of their existence. Some among us may surmise that there is no inherent value or relevance for our presence here on earth; life’s sustaining force, they may say, does not need us, it is us rather who are perpetually dependent on its merciful and patronizing nature to extend our daily vicissitudes and meaningless days. It never ceases to amaze me how easily we persuade ourselves that our coming into being must have been the doing of an omnipotent, super-intelligent entity. But we are often dismissive of the thought that it is equally probable too that our existence may very well be the result of a random act and chance occurrence, devoid of any meaning.

  The moment we begin to dwell and reflect on the thought that our life is bereft of any significance, the importance we usually accord ourselves starts to dissipate and fearfully so too. So, to help alleviate the fear and melancholy that accompanies the thought of the futility and pointlessness of our existence, we begin to plumb the depths of our souls to search for and mentally invent raison d’etre to restore our false sense of importance. Left without our sense of value and absolute necessity as a creature of life, we become relegated to a state of nature that renders us indistinguishable from other species of the animal kingdom.

  And so, in this state of nature as indifferent members of the animal kingdom, we become servants to the inhuman and hostile aspects of the animal in us. And since slavery to nature is less tolerable than slavery to institutions as a means of escape from the beast in us, we create social organizations and ascribe them meaning and purpose to suppress the Dionysian impulses in us and prolong the illusion of meaning in our lives.

  Our impulsive need to search for meaning in our lives is driven it seems by fear and legitimate fear that could only be dispelled and suppressed by replacing and adorning it with tolerable language and therapeutic concepts. If we are constantly exposed to the thoughts and languages that accompany the idea of the frivolousness of our presence here on earth, we may become liberated from the fear of death as was the case it seems with Frankl’s fellow inmates.

   Could it have been possible then that Frankl’s edifice of logotherapy was cunningly motivated largely by his fear of death, and served as an antidote for his discovery of meaninglessness in life which enabled his subsequent willingness to suffer and endure indignation, pain, dishonour, and sub-human conditions under the guise that he had discovered meaning in life?

  The men who took their lives at Auschwitz may have reckoned that it is pointless to endure and encourage their will to persevere under conditions where they ceased to be humans. The suicides of Nazi concentration camps were exercising sovereignty over their lives, and they felt it was morally and ethically correct for them to conclude to continue being under such pointless wretched conditions. The men who took their lives at Auschwitz, searching for and finding meaning were spiritually, morally, and mentally exhaustible undertakings that they were unable to realize.

  Probably what they were searching for – meaning in suffering and life – does not exist after all. But when in a state of fear and existential angst the less courageous among us may be able to find solace in logotherapy and discover value, relevance, and significance to lengthen their existence through states of hallucinations and delusions. Posthumously though, Vladimir Nabokov continues to remind us that “common sense tells us our existence is a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness". Humans appear and disappear, nothing more, no meaning, no pathetic purposes.

Orlando Patterson