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Living with meaning

Gerry Chidiac


Lessons in Learning

There is nothing more significant in life than living with meaning.

This is the concept pondered by the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl as he struggled to remain alive for three years in Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl had established the groundwork for his psychological theory on the importance of finding meaning in life before he was sent to Auschwitz.  He had great success in preventing suicides by helping his patients to realize that their lives had meaning.  As he and his comrades fought to remain alive each day, his theory was galvanized.  Those who had a “why” to live often managed to find a “how”, despite the unlikelihood of their survival.

Man’s Search For Meaning is his most famous work, and Frankl’s writings and lectures have positively impacted millions of people.  Those facing tremendous challenges and setbacks in life are often those who are most drawn to his work and most changed by his teaching.

In a world that tells us that we are what we have and do, that suffering is our own fault, it is shameful and should be avoided at all costs, Frankl’s words do not make sense.  Yet, in our consumer society where so many of us live lives that our ancestors would only dream of, we are unhappy and unfulfilled.

Perhaps we are forgetting the fundamental that forms the central theme of Frankl’s philosophy, “Life’s meaning is an unconditional one, at least potentially.  That unconditional meaning … is paralleled by the unconditional value of each and every person.” 

It is then up to each of us to discover and embrace the meaning in our own lives.

Frankl agrees that seeking out suffering is masochism, but that suffering is nonetheless an inevitable part of every human life.  The key is to embrace the challenges we face and continue to live with meaning, despite the circumstances.  As Friedreich Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson tell us: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Knowledge of these truths became a significant part of the “why” that allowed Frankl to survive the torture of the Nazis, despite having lost the life he had known and most of his family under their tyranny.  To survive, he began to imagine himself teaching the lessons he was learning after he was freed.  Miraculously, he went on to achieve this goal.

The fact that all human life has meaning brings up numerous questions.  It certainly allows each one of us to embrace our beautiful humanity and realize that no one else in the history of the world will ever be able to impact the world as we do.

Pondering this thought makes us go a step further and realize that the most meaningful thing that we can do is to support those around us in embracing their meaning, their unique gift to the world.

Where does this stop, however?  For generations, our leaders told us that only certain human lives have meaning and value.  We only needed to care about those who looked like us, believed like us, talked like us, or fit whatever standard we were told made us who we are and them who they are.  Was it not this logic that led the world to Auschwitz? 

Is it not ironic that a lesson galvanized in Auschwitz has the power to liberate the world from this bastardization of our humanity? 

Human life is meaningful because one is human.  This is as true for the most wealthy and powerful billionaire as it is for the child dying of hunger in a refugee camp. 

Ultimately, isn’t the choice that each of us must make whether we live our lives in a way that will create another Auschwitz or in a way that liberates the world from the tyranny that created Auschwitz?

Viktor Frankl lived a very meaningful life.  He gifted each of us with direction for finding meaning in our own humanity.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac

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