Many of us will begin the New Year with grief, regrets, resentments and fears. In our more contemplative moods the passing of time may lead us to raise existential questions regarding our personal mortality or that of loved ones. These sentiments are natural and experienced by us all.
Finding meaning in our lives is important because spiritual and individual balance allows us to be more effective in all facets of our lives whether it is in business, with our professional or personal relationships or simply our relationship with self. Most importantly, self-realization promotes fulfillment and allows us to feel safe, accepted, loved, loving, and alive.
In the modern age, the meaning of life has become less about our relationship with God and more about determining human purpose and meaning without reference to supernatural influences. Science disputes the traditional assessment of humans as the special conceptions of God with a special place in the scheme of creation. Science tells us that we are descended from simpler life forms and denies the beliefs and morals that once sustained us.
One of the most enduring philosophical movements of our time, Existentialism, posits that life is not determined by supernatural forces or earthly authorities and that each person must create meaning for their own life. Existentialist ideas arose at a time, similar to the present age, when there was a deep sense of despair. World War I, the Great Depression and World War II extinguished the spirit of optimism that had pervaded Western thinking in the 19th Century.
Existentialism encourages us to constantly assess existence and the way we find meaning in the world. We are born first and then we spend a lifetime defining our "essence" or nature. Our foremost concern must be finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. We are compelled by existence to choose the meaning of our lives without the help of laws, traditions or religion.
In The Tragic Sense of Life in People and Nations, Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamumo, expresses the anguish of modern individuals caught up in the struggle between the dictates of reason and the demands of their own hearts. While The Tragic Sense of Life was written in 1921, Unamuno's conversation regarding the conflict between faith and reason and our existential concern with life and death consumed the twentieth and continues to be relevant to us in the twenty-first century.
Albert Einstein did not deem science and spirituality to be in irreconcilable opposition. He believed that, "A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, reconciled science, spirituality and existentialist thought into a new and powerful psychotherapy. He was the founder of a form of existential analysis called the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" or "logotherapy" (which literally means 'therapy through meaning'). While incarcerated in the Nazi death camps, Frankl observed that those who found meaning in life were the most likely to survive. He observed that, "Other things being equal, those apt to survive the camps were those oriented toward the future—toward a task, or a person, waiting for them in the future, toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future."
Frankl found that many people who suffer greatly lack a sense of meaning in life. He believed that up to 25 per cent of the population in the West suffered from a feeling of meaninglessness, the cure for which is to help the person activate what Frankl called the "defiant power of the human spirit" and bring it to bear on current life situations to bring about a change that is healing.
Basically, logotherapy is an existential therapy in that it believes that every person has an innate desire to find meaning which provides us with our principal motivation for living. Unlike other schools of existentialism, which propose that life has no meaning except what we give it, Frankl believed in a spiritual force within us manifesting itself through us.
Like Albert Einstein and Viktor Frankl, I do not believe that spirituality and reason are in contradiction. I believe that humans, who are real, hunger for food that is real, and they thirst for water that is also real. Actual things are always the objects of human yearning, and so it is with the eternal, for which we have the greatest of yearnings.
From the beginning of time, the world has been divided into the dominion of the good and of the evil. Between these, humans are bound to choose. We are good or evil according to our choices. From human freedom of decision, it follows that we are responsible for our fate.
We ourselves are the causes of all the good and all the evil in our moral universe. We must contemplate every choice we make and decide wisely, respecting the natural and moral laws of Creation. Only then will we make perfect and timeless choices, and fulfill our destiny to renew the world.
Suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment. But there is a path to freedom from affliction: It is based in a belief in a singular force that unites all facets of existence. Inanimate things and living beings alike are the manifestation of the One.
True religions lead to the same goal, so we must revere all great teachers and prophets. Their teachings throughout the ages are the same eternal truths modified to reflect the needs of different peoples at different times.
Whether we find meaning in life by knowing that we were created by a God with a special place in creation set aside for us; whether we take solace in knowing that we ascended from primordial life forms and all life is united by its common ancestral bonds; whether we assert that we are compelled by existence to choose the meaning of our lives without the help of laws, traditions or religion; Frankl was correct that without meaning, we are destined to a life of despair.
We have the power and the freedom to determine who we are and what gives meaning to our lives. In my life, I have found the challenge with freedom is that it represents both liberation and accountability. As Sigmund Freud observed, "Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility."
After US soldiers liberated Viktor Frankl from the concentration camps on April 27, 1945, he learned that his wife, Tilly, had been transferred from Auschwitz to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she died. Frankl's mother Elsa was killed by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and his brother Walter died working in a mining operation that was part of Auschwitz. Among Frankl's immediate relatives, the only other survivor of the Holocaust was his sister Stella who had escaped by emigrating to Australia.
Frankl recalled that while in the concentration camps and thinking about his love for Tilly,
"A thought transfixed me: 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 the highest goal to which man can aspire. 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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment."
If under the circumstances of his existence in the harsh conditions of a concentration camp, Frankl was able to embrace the freedom to choose life, we can too!