Victor Frankl and The Meaning of Life

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Victor Frankl, God and Terry Blankenship

by Terry Blankenship

I struggled much of my life prior to my conversion to Christianity with a profound lack of purpose. I would ask myself over and over a question that couldn’t be answered … ‘why are we alive?’ There would never be a good answer to it from anyone. I got so depressed over this question that I began going to a psychologist at age eighteen and, in the course of my treatment, began posing the question to him.

“So … why ARE we alive?” I nervously asked him as I sat in his office.

He coughed, nervously ran a finger around the front collar of his shirt like it had suddenly become incredibly warm in his office, and replied, “Well, I think that, given another 6 months of talking this through, we might start to make some progress with that question.”

BINGO … it was just like he had opened his wallet and showed me all the money inside and … it was empty … he didn’t have a clue either. It was just not professionally savvy for him to admit to me that he had no answer to my most earnest of questions.

He did however manage to label me.

“You have existential despair,” he weakly said as his eyes averted mine.

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So I continued my search.

I had a very esteemed Vanderbilt philosophy professor that I felt I might as well pose the question to in class during one of his existentialism lectures … why not? I would at least be interrupting the right topic.

“Yes, Terry, what is your question” he asked as he motioned in my direction. The cavernous hall seemed to grow ominously quiet as my fellow students leaned in to listen as a respite from their growing boredom.

“Uh … what is the purpose of life … you know, the meaning?”

He paused for a second. He looked perplexed. But hey, this was exactly the question that has been asked throughout the ages that gave rise to the very topic on which he was lecturing … right? Going like a deer in headlights at this moment wouldn’t have been very fulfilling to his daily resume he strove to build with his students, would it?

“The meaning of life is … is that you are alive. That is the meaning of life,” he stated confidently.

At that moment, in my eyes, he slid into the very same category as my psychologist … he did not have a clue. He didn’t even have a good attempt at an answer. As a matter of fact, I determined as soon as he answered not to ask a follow-up question due to the fact that he too had just open up his wallet of wisdom and showed me his embarrassing lack of money inside.

The meaning of life is like a gothic hummingbird that flits around us all. Some of us apprehend it and are happy as a clam the rest of our lives while others are never quite able to coax it into the cage that they have built for it and therefore, are doomed to lead lives of …. well … existential despair.

Not very happy.

Not very motivated.

As a matter of fact, just downright miserable usually.

It was Victor Frankl who stated that if one has enough of a ‘why’, one can always figure out the ‘how’. A strong enough ‘why’ can even lead one to successfully endure a Nazi concentration camp, as Frankl did.

A lack of purpose in life is endemic in our generation. There is not a strong sense of purpose among our young people, those in middle age or …. senior citizens. This elusive hummingbird knows no generational bounds. We cannot hang this one on young folks when every generation has a bad case of the ‘meaningless’ fever.

When one meets Christ, the entire purpose of life question is supposed to be settled and, in my experience, it was profoundly resolved for me in a flash. Soaked in existential despair, I went in to a house one night to hear someone speak of Christ and left with a new, durable meaning for my life. Went in sad and came out happy.

I wish I could put this in more sophisticated terms but that is exactly what occurred to me.

However ….

it is also my experience that this original purpose that infused us often tends to be diluted down by the cares of the world as we accumulate years. And then we are deposited back on the doorstep of existential despair, yet once again.

Not very happy.

Not very motivated.

As a matter of fact, just downright miserable.

First, if you are reading this and are a Christian and your ‘candle of existential purpose’ has dimmed, I challenge you to do three things:

be candid with God about this – yep, I suspect that he’s big enough to take it if you can just get around to telling him the truth about the state of your heart,
Get around Christians who are motivated with a strong purpose of life … yes, simply get in their presence and stay connected to them if you can find them … and they are around, trust me,

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Start acting on what your gut is telling you to do … trust your instincts, in other words … this is not an end-run around God’s will rather this is often a run straight into God’s will … for example, if you feel that God uses you to listen to folks who have crushing burdens, then seek someone you know is burdened and listen to them … God does not want his hands (i.e., you and me) to be hands of remarkably good intentions but remarkably little action.

I want to stay on point number three for a bit. There is something about life on the planet earth that strips us of our trust in ourselves. Now, many would say this is a good thing, but I do not think it is a good thing. Rather, I think it is a tragedy because God has gifted us with wonderful minds, spirits and the like and he surely want us to learn to use these in our journeys, always in concert with his Spirit. Do not let this occur to you … Renew your faith in your own instincts because, hey, God is in there (remember the Holy Spirit?).

These three things are not a guarantee for a persistent and strong ‘why’ in your life but if your candle is somewhat dim, doing these three things will help ensure that the dim will almost assuredly become brighter.

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