It’s been a while. It’s been long enough for me to briefly lose ownership of this website because I forgot to renew it and to not even realize. It’s been one summer semester and two school semesters. It’s been family vacations, holidays, explorations, new jobs, new friends, old friends, and a ton of other adventures and experiences.
I think I stopped writing because I didn’t have anything to say. Then, I had too much to say. Next, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. And then, I wasn’t sure what I needed to say. Now, I don’t have anything I need to say, I have a lot I want to say, and I know I probably could say nothing at all, or say too much all at once.
Here’s what I will say:
The past year has been everything I needed and nothing I expected. I always hoped to find purpose and meaning. I always hoped to stay in my life long enough to find that. I always hoped life would be the answer, if I could just live long enough. This year, I did.
A few days ago, I wrote for someone about my search for meaning and realized that there are a lot of things I’ve learned that might be valuable to someone else and worthwhile to offer to a greater audience.
What I’ve done over the past year has been really exciting to me, but probably not that exciting to others. I’ve been stable, in my life, and growing, which has allowed me a number of possibilities I didn’t know existed. I could write about those- about where I’ve been and what I’ve done- and some day I probably will, be it on this blog or elsewhere. But, my experiences are individual, and what’s important is what’s universally relevant, both for when my future inevitably looks different and for others whose present takes its own form.
What I’ve done and where I am is really, really cool. But what I’ve learned is better, so here’s one thing I’d like to highlight:
When I was 18 years old, I was handed Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and told it would perhaps help me understand myself.
I read the book, not because I thought it would help me, but because I loved the person who gave it to me, and I was desperate for a way to connect to the people I loved. The story was fascinating. Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, detailed his experience during his time in Auschwitz through a psychological lens. Although the novel includes many painful memories of the harsh conditions in the concentration camp, Frankl was most interested in using these observations to support the theory he had developed as a first-hand witness. Aware of the extent to which all prisoners suffered, Frankl was curious. With all that he saw, Frankl wanted to know not why so many died, but rather how some, despite all odds and equally terrible circumstances, nonetheless survived.
In search of an answer to his question, Frankl collected qualitative data throughout his imprisonment and came to a conclusion: a sense of meaning or purpose to one’s life is critical for survival. Frankl wrote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning,” and used this as the crux of his existential philosophy and his tactics as a therapist. Frankl explained his theory by relaying his memories and the countless examples of individuals who persisted through the turmoil with hope for a better future and/or for a greater end. Frankl contrasted these stories to those of prisoners whose dwindling hope ran parallel to their health, noting the correlation between survival of the soul and that of the body.
At the time I read Man’s Search for Meaning, it invigorated hope in me. I thought if Frankl could in so many ways prove the significance of meaning in life, he might also know what that meaning is.
I turned the pages, looking for an answer to this inevitable question. “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 highest goal to which man can aspire,” he wrote. “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.”
Frankl noted that the driving forces of meaning for the prisoners were all found in human connection – that those who survived did so in memory of those they loved or in hope for those to come. In all of his examples, he discovered that aside from their suffering, the individuals who survived all had one thing in common: love as the purpose for their continued life, and this as a motivator to persevere. Thus, he concluded that such love and such purpose do not only save the mind in times of hardship, but are also inextricably woven into the body’s physical will to survive.
I was devastated, but I tried to smile when I later returned the book to its owner and explained that months earlier someone wise shared with me a similar answer. “Love is the reason for life,” I was told after I had first spoken the tormenting questions I had long kept secret. At the time, this answer kept me going. “Perhaps, I have not yet felt love?” I thought. “Maybe if I only focus on the places I feel love, I will not feel the burden of hate or suffering?”
But, as time went on with this as my solution, I began to believe that there was something wrong with me. I could not feel fully satisfied by love as my purpose. I loved so many people, yet that did not fill the emptiness in my core, nor heal my body and arouse my soul. Instead, my love and this newfound wisdom weighed on my conscience, adding to my feelings of guilt and my burdening questions.
When I was once again presented with this answer in Man’s Search for Meaning, I was equally sad and afraid. Nonetheless, Frankl and his ideas in this book left an impact. For a while, it reinvigorated a drive within me to return to love in human connection as a solution and armor to my suffering. And for a while, that worked. I stopped letting my mind wander when it began to question, and instead I adopted love as my answer. If love didn’t feel like enough, I wasn’t doing it right, I concluded. I would make love my answer, because I didn’t have a better one.
Inevitably, the effort with which I had to convince myself of my purpose wore down both my belief in the solution of love and my will to continue searching. The patterns in my mind, which had never stopped, became patterns in my life that had previously taken me down. And over time, I forgot about love as Frankl’s answer, though I never forgot about his initial discovery: the significance of a sense of meaning, and its role in surviving suffering. It was this I held on to desperately, and it was this that became my first purpose.
I was not sure of a purpose to life. I was actually quite sure there was no purpose great enough to outweigh the pain in life. But, although I had not yet found satisfying evidence for a meaning to life, neither had I found evidence of the contrary. As afraid as I was of living for no end, I was more afraid of being wrong. In fact, I hoped to be wrong, but was wearied with time.
Frankl sparked a more persistent hope within me, and with this I set to determining my purpose. I agreed to endure the moments of despair and fear in hope of a later solution or a greater love. In doing so, I embodied the will of meaning that Frankl had witnessed. I did not know it then, but I, for the first time, had gained the energy that meaning provides to persist through suffering. Instead of love as my answer, I was driven by the goal of finding an answer. And so, I began to enter life, to fully live, and to encounter other questions and passions that began to feel like love.
About a month before my twenty-second birthday now, I’m not quite sure when my anxiety about being purposeless diminished enough to be overpowered by my very stable sense of meaning and satisfaction in exploration and being. I presume the moment can’t be pinpointed, as the stages were gradual. I could detail the stages and the stories – I could try to recall the moments I thought I had found a something to call my purpose, and then had been let down. I could weigh in the shift I experienced between conscious and subconscious searching and its importance in the process. But, mostly I don’t remember, and I don’t think that’s the story that needs to be told.
I think that this story has been told and retold. Frankl wasn’t the first person to write about an existential crisis, nor was he the first to philosophize about the purpose of life. He was just the author to whom I was first exposed. While I worked my way through my own search for meaning, I came across others in Goethe’s characterization of Faust, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shelley’s Frankenstein, etc. However, in each the solution fell in human connection, relationships, and love.
The story I have not yet heard is the story where the love of relationships supports, promotes growth, and is crucial in developing and maintaining purpose, but that the love of one’s self and one’s potential to create and to be plays the essential role in continuing to be. I have not read or heard of the purpose of love as an action, or of action fueled by love. For me, this distinction has been significantly true and thoroughly tied to my survival, awakening my soul and breathing life into my body.
It was not simply enough to have love, to feel love, or to know love. I still awoke to a feeling of emptiness. It was only when I lived through love – when I actively approached the places I felt love and worked to achieve love that I felt purpose. It was the love that didn’t come easily. It was the love that needed from me as much as I needed it. It was the love that changed and engaged my critical thinking and was dependent on my effort that gave me a place on this planet and peace within myself.
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly,” Frankl wrote. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Although Frankl wrote about the importance of continuing on through one’s day with the motivation set forth by meaning found in love, he failed to connect the two in the ways that they’re intimately linked. Life’s tasks are not always lovable. But the goals one sets in accomplishing such tasks must be in love, and are pertinent to one’s sense of meaning. We may not always find meaning or solutions in our actions, but our actions must be meaningful and therefore provide an overarching answer to our continued life. For some it may be that the goal is unrelated but dependent on the completion of the task at hand, such as those who survived concentration camp conditions with the hope of survival and a chance at reuniting with loved ones. However, love and acting in love may take many shapes and forms.
For me, purpose looked different at different times. I first found active love in simply seeking a purpose. It was a goal I loved, and it required my thought and search. I woke up each morning with an agenda and explored the world for an answer. I had something I was hoping to gain in the activities in which I participated, the courses in which I enrolled, the cities in which I lived, and the relationships in which I showed up, and that something was built in love. I started to find more places in which I found love, and those places promoted new goals that required more of me. Each goal felt like love and the energy I offered felt like purpose. Sometimes, these places stopped feeling like love. In those moments, I came back to a search for meaning as my purpose. Though those moments would spark fear within me, and at times allow back the feelings of emptiness for hours or even days, they never again drowned me.
And with time, the memory of that initial purpose, quelled the moments of doubt. I knew that the feeling of purpose existed, and even more importantly, that I could access it. My self-worth was no longer dependent on external measures because each measure was simply a means to an end that I knew I could obtain. I depended on my actions to obtain that sense of purpose, but I depended on myself to choose to act. With choice, I gained freedom and with choice, I found meaning.
I believe everyone wants to want to live and thrive and love. I think for some this wanting and finding comes naturally, and for others it’s a process. I think some do not know how to want these things. I think others do not know that they exist, or at least not for them, and thus wanting doesn’t seem possible or worthwhile. However, I believe that once a person feels a sense of purpose, it is impossible to turn away unless out of fear of losing that sense in the future.
Perhaps other writers and thinkers have meant this, and left it unstated, or expected it to be inferred. Perhaps, it’s been said and I simply haven’t come across it. Perhaps, I’ve come across it and overlooked it at times when I was unaware of its value. Whatever the case, I think it’s worthwhile and important to specify. Love can be one’s purpose. The meaning of life can be found in love. But, love can be found in many domains. Connections are important in love and for love, but how we connect and engage with our place of love is critical for the fulfillment of love and the outcome of purpose. I believe the source of love is meaning, and that meaning is felt in acting through love. I believe the meaning of life and the way through life is meaning, itself.