The Austrian existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl suggested that, generally, the need for meaning is a crucial force in people, from the time we’re born until our last breath. He continued to feel this way when his family was murdered by the Nazis and he himself was sent to Auschwitz. Frankl frequently quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s remark that “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
In “Mans’ Search for Meaning”, Frankl describes suffering as a potential springboard both for having a need for meaning and for finding it:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.
Frankl also suggests that the one freedom allowed in us, irrespective of our circumstances, including his horrid subjugation at a Nazi concentration camp, is the freedom to pick our way of thinking in accepting our suffering. This might mean that meaning can be found in becoming a role model for others dealing with similar problems, or utilizing our suffering as a channel for changing for the better in particular aspects of our lives:
It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
Frankl’s story is worth the read: (1) as a reminder of the depths and heights of human nature, and the nature of hopes and despairs that rule our existence, (2) for the idea that life is primarily about the search for meaning and the kinds of choices we can make to establish significance in our lives (logotherapy technique.)