This is an interesting perspective, isn’t it? Very different from our normal way of thinking. I think you will find it a productive question to ask yourself, “What task has life set for me?”
For example, Tom has seen his boss doing something unscrupulous, but he really wants his promotion, and he’s the breadwinner of a growing family. He feels torn. It would give him a helpful perspective to ask, “What task is life setting for me here?”
Men in the concentration camp with Frankl sometimes tried to kill themselves. Because Frankl was a psychiatrist, life asked him to do something about it. He was called upon by his fellow prisoners to talk to the despairing men and find a way to renew their will to live.
Frankl learned the importance of finding meaning in life firsthand. When a person had some meaning, some reason to live, they were much less likely to kill themselves.
Frankl found that one man had a niece. The man was her only surviving family member. She needed him. So he had a reason to stay alive. There was a meaning to his suffering — he must endure. He must survive so he could look after that girl.
Another man had written several volumes of an important book series and it needed to be completed. He was the only person who could complete it. That was enough to keep him from committing suicide or just giving up and dying.
Frankl helped these men find something important life was asking them to do, and that was enough of a reason to live.
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist in Germany when Hitler took power and Frankl spent many years struggling to stay alive in concentration camps. During that time, he lost his wife, his brother, and both his parents — they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. He lost every possession he ever owned. Because he already knew a lot about psychology before he experienced these extreme circumstances, his observations have an extraordinary depth that makes his slim book, Man's Search for Meaning, very much worth reading. His perspective on finding meaning in life is different from any other I have encountered. He wrote, for example:
"The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion, “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds true for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment."I love that line: “…to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” For example, Frankl tried to keep his fellow prisoners from committing suicide. The Nazis had made it strictly forbidden to stop a fellow prisoner from killing himself. If you cut down a prisoner in the process of hanging himself, you (and probably everyone in your bunkhouse) would be severely punished. So Frankl had to catch people before they actually attempted suicide. This, he felt, was a concrete assignment which demanded fulfillment. He was a psychiatrist. He was the most qualified prisoner in his camp to fulfill this assignment.
The men would often confide in Frankl, since he was a psychiatrist. The two men I mentioned above had told Frankl they had decided to commit suicide. Both of them had basically the same reason: They had nothing more to expect from life. All they could expect was endless suffering, starvation, torture, and in the end, probably the gas chamber.
“In both cases,” wrote Frankl, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them...” After talking with the men, Frankl discovered one of them was a scientist who had written several volumes of a book, but the project was incomplete. The other man had a niece in another country, and he was her last living relative.
These are concrete answers to the question, "What does life expect from me?" The first man needed to finish his work. The other needed to find his niece and take care of her. Frankl had done nothing more than help them see they had a concrete assignment they hadn’t yet fulfilled.
Even for people in less desperate situations than a concentration camp, a sense of purposelessness can produce fatigue, depression, alcoholism, and suicide. A lack of purpose creates all kinds of mental and emotional ill-health. And even if the ill-health wasn't created by purposelessness, finding a purpose can often cure the health problem.
It doesn’t matter what other factors are doing well — money, family, kids, work, health — without a sense of purpose, those things won’t make you happy, and psychological problems will tend to plague you.
And you can’t "make something up" just to have a purpose. Any random goal is not good enough. It’s got to be real for you. It has to have meaning for you. This is not a quick and easy fix. This is a profound and fundamental question: What concrete assignment do you really feel is demanding fulfillment?
Each person’s life is unique. The concrete assignment a person needs to fulfill is different for every person, and different for each person at different times under different circumstances. Frankl discovered that a prisoner would not commit suicide once he realized his unique obligation to life.
Frankl’s observations have been borne out by recent research. Investigators at New York State Psychiatric Institute studied eighty-four people suffering major depression trying to determine why thirty-nine of them had never attempted to kill themselves. Instead of asking what makes depressed people want to die, they asked what makes them want to live.
The study revealed that age, sex, religious persuasion or education level did not predict who would attempt suicide. But strong reasons to live did predict it rather well. The depressed patients who responded to the questionnaire with more reasons for living showed less hopelessness and were less likely to try to kill themselves.
Other studies have shown that students who feel they have some purpose in life are far less likely to get involved with drugs.
Purpose in life. Meaning in life. These are not superfluous issues reserved for philosophy classes. Frankl’s question brings us to the heart of a vital matter. The question makes us look at our situation from an unusual point of view.
Thinking about "what you want out of life" is a common thing to do; it is looking at your situation in a common way. But what about asking what life wants out of you? Not that you should ignore what you want out of life. I don’t think these two points of view are entirely opposing, and in fact, I would add to Frankl’s view that the ideal purpose fulfills both. For both of the prisoners who had decided to commit suicide, Frankl’s point of view helped them find their purpose, but for both of them, the purpose was not merely a duty. It was also something they wanted very strongly and had simply forgotten about or given up on. For each man, their purpose was something they desired and also something they felt was a concrete assignment that demanded fulfillment.
Frankl’s question is worth asking — especially if your aim doesn’t seem very clear to you. By looking at your life from another angle, you can sometimes see what you’ve disregarded or overlooked. What needs to be done and what you strongly want to do is often staring you in the face without you seeing it.
For Michael W. Fox, his concrete assignment was unmistakable. Fox is now a veterinarian and author of several books. When he was nine years old, he was walking home from school when he looked through a fence and saw a ghastly sight: A large trash bin overflowing with dead dogs and cats. He was looking into the backyard of a veterinary clinic. “I never knew the reason for this mass extermination,” Fox said, “but I was, from that time on, committed to doing all I could to help animals, deciding at age nine that I had to be a veterinarian.”
Here was a concrete assignment life had presented to Fox. He saw something that needed to be done, and he strongly wanted to do something about it. He became a veterinarian and has been reducing the suffering of animals ever since. He has worked to educate people and pass legislation that reflects more respect for all animals.
A clear aim can convert a feeling of horror into a resolve to do something about it. A clear aim can transform a feeling of despair into grim determination. If there is anything in your life you feel you've given up on, or if you feel despair or hopelessness about something, this is your wake up call. A clear aim can change a self-defeating, counterproductive emotion into a constructive feeling that leads to constructive action. For example, during the Korean War, the Chinese government tried to brainwash captured U.S. soldiers. The Chinese used every technique they could think of to make the POWs give up their belief in personal freedom and take up a belief in the greatness of communism.
The captives were tortured, starved, and psychologically assaulted — unless they converted. In one of the prison camps, three-fourths of the POWs had died, and things looked pretty bleak to those still alive. They were feeling demoralized and hopeless. Not only did their chances for survival look slim, but they would have to endure terrible suffering until the end. The POWs were beginning to give up on life.
Then one man said, “We’ve got to stay alive, we’ve got to let others know about the horrors of Communism. We’ve got to live to bring back the armies and fight these evil people. Communism must not win!”
This was a turning point for every American in that prison because their meaningless suffering was transformed into a mission. Their despair was turned into resolve. Their feeling of hopelessness was transformed into firm determination. And from that point, prisoners stopped dying. They made it back to the U.S. They lived to tell the world what happened.
A definite, worthwhile, heartfelt purpose can transform a horrible experience into a sacred calling, crusade, a holy aspiration, a true mission. I’ve read about and had personal experience with the same transformation many times.
Viktor Frankl wrote, “Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal...Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, studied exceptional people to find out what unusually healthy people were like. Until Maslow came along, psychologists mostly studied mentally ill people to find out why they were ill and how they became that way. Maslow felt we could also learn something from the study of fulfilled, happy, successful people. That became his life’s work. And one of the things he found out about these “self-actualized” people was that “every one of them, without exception, were devoted to a cause outside their own skin.”
They were devoted to a cause. They had a clear aim. And for these exceptional people, it was a clear aim beyond satisfying their personal needs. They were working on a concrete assignment that demanded fulfillment.
If you want to join the ranks of the self-actualized, get yourself a purpose that fires you up. Find something that you think is needed, that you feel is important, that you want very strongly to see accomplished. If you don’t have one, I have one for you. I’ve thought long and hard about what is needed in this world, and here it is: We must win the war against pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism, and you can help. You can take up this banner and put your powers to the test.
Maybe you already have a clear aim. Or maybe your clear aim is not so global in scope. If not, don’t sweat it. But don’t try to accomplish a clear aim if your heart isn’t in it. Pick something important to you. Choose something that fits your situation. Remember the man who had a niece to take care of.
But don't choose a goal beneath you, either. Defeatism reveals itself in the setting of low goals — goals too small or petty — goals below your capabilities. Setting a low or petty goal is a kind of preemptive defeat. You’ve given up on bigger goals before you’ve even tried. For someone with no purpose at all or in a very restricted situation (like a concentration camp), a small goal is all you may be able to muster. But as your level of psychological fitness increases (and/or as your material conditions improve), there comes a time when a full-on crusade is called for as a context for your life.
There isn’t one right purpose which you must find and follow. Delete that kind of magical thinking from your thoughts forever! Any constructive purpose is better than no purpose and some are better than others. Some are good for now, but no good if pursued too long. The important thing is that you like your purpose and feel it is important.
We don’t know if life really does expect anything from us. But asking that question calls forth deep personal answers of meaning and purpose. Try pondering the question for a few days and you’ll see what I mean.