(published in the Arizona Daily Star, 9/25/22)
Viktor Frankl posited that a sense of purpose in one’s life is essential not only for happiness, but even psychological survival. That may sound like typical New Age pablum, but given his experiences in the concentration camps of World War II, his “Man’s Search for Meaning” cannot be so easily dismissed.
The hard part of the question, though, is how to understand just what it is asking. After all, the term “meaning” has all sorts of…well… “meanings.” Speaking broadly, many people understand it in terms of personal success. Olympic athletes, for example, are not alone when they say their life’s “meaning” is to win a gold medal in their field. Every profession has its equivalent “gold medal.” Then there are those who define “meaning” in terms of “helping others.” Teachers and doctors are typical in this category, but even the most cynical have to concede that there are all kinds of entrepreneurs and inventors who came up with their innovations sincerely to help others and not only to make a profit. This very Internet was freely made public by Sir Tim Berners-Lee who felt that such a commodity should be accessible by all and he could not, in good conscience, take out a patent on it.
However, the ironic curse for either of these groups can be success. Once having won the gold medal or found the previously elusive cure, the inevitable question arises: “Now what?” Duane Thomas was a rather enigmatic star running back for the Dallas Cowboys who was about to play in the Super Bowl. When asked how he felt about playing in the biggest game of all time, he became quite pensive and answered with a question of his own: “If it’s such a big game, why are they playing it again next year?”
Frankl’s search for meaning can become quite desperate, leading some to join religions and cults that demand an unquestioning acceptance of their definition of “meaning.” Existentialists argue that there is no “absolute” meaning in this random universe. Rather, people have to create their own sense of meaning. That has a certain logic to it, though it needs to be remembered that such an approach gives equal validity to the purposes of an Adolf Hitler as it does for Mother Teresa. We cannot logically say that the universe is totally random but the only approaches we will accept are those we like. But if one looks out at the universe and sees more than ample evidence of Intelligence, then the question becomes all the more baffling. Furthermore, if there is such an Intelligence, there seems to be something of a tease in the ability to even ask the question.
In Hinduism, the answer is: “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.” Similarly, when God addresses Job “out of the whirlwind,” Job’s questions are also unanswered. Nevertheless, Job is comforted by the sheer knowledge that there are answers, if unknown at this time. What do we do in the meantime? We do whatever gives us a sense of meaning in the here and how…with the implicit understanding that there will be another game next year.