Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived a number of concentration camps including Auschwitz. During this time, he paid close attention to the behaviour of both the inmates and the wardens. He recorded and analysed their behaviour in detail. In doing so he developed a simple hypothesis. While the answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life” might be simple, the way we pose the question is problematic.

You see, it is not us who get to demand of the world, “What is the meaning of life”, Rather life is demanding that we answer the question with the actions and decisions we make. We create meaning in our choices and our beliefs”.

The fact that the meaning of life is our responsibility and that we get to decide based on our choices and beliefs might seem overwhelming, but it is also truly liberating. If it’s to be, it’s up to me – no one else. I cannot abdicate responsibility for the meaning I give to my life. When we realise this, we realise how important it is to choose the life that we will find meaningful.

When we have a clear set of beliefs it leads to the improved quality of choices. This in turn leads to decisions and actions that are driven with intent and purpose. It is said that first we make our choices and then our choices make us. In essence we give our life meaning by having a well-defined purpose – a why, a clear set of beliefs that guide our choices.

In the 1980s one of the most original thinkers in South Africa was philosopher Professor Martin Versveld. After a lifetime dedicated to studying the human condition, wrote in his book Sum. Selected Works,

Life has no meaning; we give it meaning by how we treat other people”.

Let’s pause and reflect on this simple but powerful thought. It leads credence to Frankl’s premise that we should answer the question “what is the meaning of life” through our actions and deeds. And in this instance by how we treat others. As I mentioned I could only begin to change mothers and an entire company once I had made the choice to change myself.

Can there be any greater action we commit than out interaction with others? Love, peace, hatred, war, respect, jealousy – the whole human condition is premised on the quality of our relations with others. The quality of our life is relative to how we interact with others. John Donne knew that no man is an island, and Nelson Mandela believed that we are who we are because of other people.

Wine-lovers will know that the Hermit of Hermitage was an exception to this rule. Returning exhausted from the Crusades, Knight Henry Gaspard eschewed a life of waging war, witnessing brutality and death on an industrial scale. He headed off up the hill of Hermitage where he built a Chapel surrounded by vineyards. He avoided any form of contact with other human. Perhaps if my wines were this good I would too. It was Gaspard’s way of dealing with trauma to simply remove himself from it and who can blame him? Today it is infinitely more difficult. As an introvert who prefers to sit at home with my family and dogs to attending any number of functions, I have learned to be in crowds and not of crowds. By this I mean I have developed a set of skills that allow me to interact but enough time to recharge myself before the next event. I did this courtesy of Susan Cain’s remarkable book Quiet. But I certainly could not live in isolation. Nor I suspect could any of us.

In Auschwitz Frankl made the following insightful observation: prisoners who grew hopeless and gave up on life, those who had lost all hope for their future, were inevitably the first to die. They died less from lack of food or lack of medicine than from lack of hope. Lack of something to live for. Lack of something to look forward to. And a lack of something to love. Their lives had simply lost meaning. They were living without hope.

When we understand this, we begin to understand the importance of living with hope. Hope is the sap in the vine, the acid in the wine – hope is our elixir of life. Fortunately hope can be understood and developed, if like Frankl we believe that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as his fellow Austrian Freud believed. Nor is it a quest for power as Alfred Adler taught. Life for Frankl was a quest for meaning. The great task for man is to find his meaning in his life – his purpose. His reason for existing. And this is where the pyramid of purpose, meaning and hope intersect.

Frankl listed the following activities as sources of purpose and meaning:

  • Work: In particular doing something significant, something bigger than ourselves. A passion, project, hobby, interest that is an integral part of your life. Look to see where it intersects with your career and how you can incorporate them.
  • Love: Frankl saw this as a generous agape form of love. It may be that generous unconditional love for a spouse. Or it might be the love for all the children in an orphanage like Dr Wilbur Larch in the Cider House Rules. Can you list another person or people you care about deeply enough to make your life worth living and fighting for?
  •  Suffering: We give suffering meaning by how we respond to it. When we recall a time we have suffered mentally, physically, spiritually, how we dealt with it and what we learned about our self and others. This form of introspection helps us to place suffering in perspective. Vipassana meditation teaches us how to avoid suffering by controlling our thoughts and responses to it. We’ll deal with some of these techniques later.

As we begin to get a clearer understanding of our WHY, so we importantly understand that hope is the source of our optimism for the future, even during times of adversity. Or as Nietzsche put it,

He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any How”.

Find your purpose, it’s important enough to take time and agonise over it, find assistance, read, ask questions and get it down – this is the first step in planning the rest of your life. To building hope in your life and those you lead.