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“What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
This is how Viktor Frankl described success after he went from a 39-year-old rising author and psychologist to prisoner number 119,104 at Auschwitz.
As we close our three-part look at Man’s Search for Meaning and, specifically, how Frankl retained what he called “spiritual freedom” through the worst days of World War II, so far we’ve covered Frankl’s conclusion that meaning is what animates our lives and we’ve defined meaning, in part, as love for another.
But there’s a different form of meaning that Frankl highlighted in his book, namely, love for one’s contribution to the world.
This realization came to him while being forced to work outside in the middle of winter and, rather than being consumed with the misery of his condition, Frankl began to pass the time by picturing himself giving lectures on his experience after the war ended.
“Emotion,” he wrote, “ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”
What Frankl is describing here is tapping into the mental freedom that allowed him to transcend his physical circumstances. His body was still present, but his mind was where he chose it to be.
As you think about your own contribution to the world, please know this isn’t strictly limited to your career. Your contributions are found in every interaction you have – down to your very presence.
For example, this Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of September 11th and, whenever I think about that day, I’m reminded of a man who stood alone on a bridge each morning for weeks after the attack waving a huge American flag.
The flag was probably three times his size and yet he showed up every day as a reminder not to lose hope. I don’t have any pictures and I don’t know his name, but I’ve never forgotten his contribution.
This is Frankl’s legacy. That spiritual freedom exists, that it is rooted in love, and that love can – and does – endure to pull us through as long as we choose to keep it alive. As he says in the book, it’s not our freedom from certain conditions that defines us, but the freedom to take a stand towards them and choose our own way.
The final paragraph of Man’s Search for Meaning reads as follows:
Our generation is realistic, for we continue to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
In other words, through the best and through the worst, life is meaningful when we find meaning in it. And at the very end of our journey – when everything else that we believed gave our life meaning has gone – we still have one final choice in whether to love another, and that is our true contribution to the world.
PS – Since no piece of writing can capture the experience of hearing people share their stories, I highly recommend listening to this Interfaith Voices interview with Eva Fahidi and Magda Brown who were both liberated from Auschwitz 71 years ago.