In Viktor Frankl’s native German language, the word for “meaning” is “sinn,” a word that translates to “sense” in English. When asked to define “meaning”, Frankl would say, “what is meant.” In other words, what we realize is the right choice for us to make in a particular situation. Our conscience is the “meaning organ” that acts as a compass to guide our choice.
The underlying concept of meaning is the fact that who we are and what we do matters to the world. We have a unique and irreplaceable role to play in the fabric of life that relates to the unknowable, ultimate meaning of our existence. Meaning refers to what is meant and intended specifically for each of us in the situations we are confronted with during the course of our lives. We are called to responsibly answer to life’s demands, thereby making our lives meaningful.
“Each human being is unique both in his essence (‘Sosein’) and his existence (‘Dasein’) and thus is neither expendable nor replaceable. In other words, he is a particular individual with his unique personal characteristics who experiences a unique historical context in a world that has special opportunities and obligations reserved for him alone.”
In the U.S., the terms, “meaning” and “purpose,” are usually differentiated and subjective. “Meaning” often refers to what matters to a person and “purpose” to one’s personal higher calling or a self-driven intent. Logotherapy uses these terms in an objective rather than a subjective way. We do not push ourselves toward meaning, but rather we are pulled towards it. We do not construct it, it is there and we intuitively recognize it in a given situation.
In Frankl’s English-translated books, the terms “meaning and purpose” are often used together, but they have a loose association. “Purpose” as used by Viktor Frankl, describes action undertaken to achieve a result. The result does not necessarily have to be meaningful. Consequently, something can be purposeful without being meaningful. For example, someone can rob a bank for the purpose of acquiring money, but it doesn’t make it meaningful.
Meaning is found in the tangible choices we make in each moment. There are three fundamental ways in which we can realize meaning (i.e., turn meaning from potential into a reality of value):
Creatively: By doing a deed, creating a work, or other action-oriented activity.
Experientially: By experiencing all the world has to offer such as beauty, truth, or the uniqueness of another human being (love).
Attitudinally: In the attitude or stand we take towards our circumstances. This is especially significant when we are confronted with unavoidable suffering such as guilt, pain, or death.
Frankl often referred to finding meaning as a process similar to visual Gestalt perception (where, for example, we see the shape of a bear hidden in a drawing of a forest) and Karl Buhler’s Aha! experience (suddenly understanding something like pieces of a puzzle coming together). When our eyes recognize a meaningful shape in a drawing, it seems to pop-out from the background.
Similarly, once we look for and recognize meaning possibilities, they will pop-out from the background of our reality. The right choice is different from person to person and moment to moment and guided by our conscience. We have free will to determine our choices so our lives are not pre-determined. We always retain the power to decide whether and how we respond to the demands of the situation.
It is the search for meaning—finding the moment-to-moment pathway toward our unknowable ultimate meaning—that constitutes our primary motivation to live. We are meaning-oriented beings on a quest. The process of searching can involve struggle and patience, but it is the source of mental health and wellbeing.
“The conviction that one has a task before him has enormous psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic value. We venture to say that nothing is more likely to help a person overcome or endure objective difficulties or subjective troubles than the consciousness of having a task in life. That is all the more so when the task seems to be personally cut to suit, as it were; when it constitutes what may be called a mission. Having such a task
makes the person irreplaceable and gives his life the value of uniqueness.”
The priorities of our personal value system play a key role in determining the right choice in each situation. We have the freedom to choose how we respond as well as the responsibility for the choices we make. Rather than a need that is driving or pushing us, once recognized, the most responsible choice in a given situation is pulling us, waiting to be fulfilled by us. Meaning cannot be created by us or given to us. It is a discovery process, a personal journey that makes life worth living.
“For only to the extent that man has fulfilled the concrete meaning of his personal existence will he also have fulfilled himself.”
© Viktor Frankl Institute of America