The Meaning of Life

In light of the numerous challenges facing the world, we often adopt a pessimistic outlook, assuming that life is inherently difficult and that peace can only be found in the afterlife. Is it truly conceivable to live a life devoid of challenges and experience unblemished serenity on earth? Or is this an unattainable aspiration we yearn and pray for from God with little hope of realization?

Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

That sentiment is understandable. When we confront numerous occurrences of injustice and brutality in our society, we tend to assert that there is no divine plan in this world and perhaps no afterlife at all. Where do we go when we pass away? Is there an eternal void awaiting us? We originated from nothingness and will return to nothingness, with only life’s hardships in between. Do you concur with this perspective?

Therefore, life lacks significance. We are uncertain about the reasons behind our existence and will never unravel the mysteries surrounding the purpose, mission, and meaning of our lives. Even King Solomon, who seemingly relished a life filled with unparalleled fulfillment, endowed with divine talent and wisdom, could not evade such a pessimistic outlook:

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!” What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-5

Does everything amount to nothingness? Is life merely a squandered opportunity? Are our lives and the world in which we reside destitute of significance? And does the universe itself lack purpose?

Assuming that life lacks significance, why do we experience emotions of discontentment akin to those of King Solomon? If the world and the universe emerged from sheer chance, there should be no sense of despondency or anguish. Amid such randomness, we can never discern any intent or purpose because none exists. Accepting the concept of randomness implies accepting that there is no underlying motive or rationale behind what has transpired. We would be compelled to embrace agnosticism, and all we would know is that we know nothing at all.

In human history, we have often encountered extreme and daunting challenges. One of the most horrific examples is the experience of individuals in concentration camps during World War II, who suffered unimaginable atrocities. Similarly, many prisoners of war and individuals subjected to severe and hopeless forms of slavery found themselves in similarly harrowing circumstances. For these individuals, life was nothing but a relentless cycle of pain and suffering. Such situations can make it seem as though life lacks any inherent meaning or purpose and that there is no benevolent higher power guiding our existence.

Furthermore, there have been numerous instances of genocide throughout history where innocent civilians have been subjected to brutal violence and atrocities, including torture, slaughter, and execution by various armed forces. Some victims endured a slow death due to starvation, while others perished in a matter of seconds due to the use of atomic bombs that devastated entire cities. Additionally, some individuals became casualties of soldiers who were driven to madness on the battlefields.

Is extreme suffering the only challenge we face? While it is true that compared to the brutality and violence of pre-modern times, our lives are comparatively more peaceful, and the concept of human rights is more established, it does not necessarily mean that we are less pessimistic than those who suffered in the past. Whether we lived during the time of Biblical King Solomon, the Medieval Church, the ideological conflicts of the 20th century, or the postmodern era of globalization, we cannot evade the despair that arises from the belief that life lacks meaning.

At first glance, it may appear that extreme circumstances can be a catalyst for nihilism, as they can create conditions where the meaninglessness of life becomes apparent. However, the truth is that it is not the extremity of life that leads to nihilism but rather our perception of it. Of course, external conditions should not be overlooked, and human rights are a crucial achievement of human evolution. We should not romanticize the past, where human rights were underdeveloped and not globally widespread, and individuals suffered from inhumane treatment or premature and unfair deaths. It is crucial to recognize and celebrate the progress we have made in this area and continue to strive for further progress. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that physical or external extremities are not the primary causes of the feeling that life lacks meaning.

Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced unimaginable suffering during World War II while he was in a Nazi concentration camp. We know what he experienced as the stories about the concentration camp have been documented in numerous books and films. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” first published in 1946, Frankl chronicled his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camps, offering a powerful firsthand account of the atrocities he witnessed and endured. Despite the extreme persecution, Frankl was among the survivors, and his insights into the human condition have since become a source of inspiration for many.

In extreme situations like a concentration camp, people’s values tend to degrade as their survival instincts kick in. The competition for survival of the fittest becomes more pronounced, and individuals become more self-centered, similar to the brutality of battlefields during riots. People become physically aggressive, attacking and defeating opponents, often viewing most others as enemies. This is reminiscent of an era of constant tribal warfare, as our ancestors would say: “We have to kill them before they kill us.”

On the other hand, amidst the negative actions of some humans, he also witnessed a contrasting behavior that was surprisingly heroic and divine. Some individuals displayed exceptional bravery in situations of extreme adversity, surpassing even their own expectations. These remarkable deeds can be classified into four distinct categories of heroism: 

  1. Selflessness: In the camps, Frankl witnessed numerous instances of selfless behavior, where prisoners put themselves at risk to help others. For example, he recalls a fellow prisoner who gave away his last piece of bread to someone who was hungrier than he was, even though he knew it would likely lead to his own starvation.
  2. Sacrifice: Frankl also observed many instances of sacrifice, where prisoners put their own lives on the line to save others. One such example was when a group of prisoners gave up their own meager rations to help a sick comrade recover.
  3. Courage: Frankl saw countless examples of bravery and courage among the prisoners. For example, he witnessed one man who stood up to a cruel and sadistic guard, even though he knew it could result in severe punishment or even death.
  4. Resilience: Finally, Frankl was struck by the resilience of many prisoners, who were able to find meaning and purpose in their suffering and maintain their sense of dignity and humanity even in the face of extreme adversity.

In the midst of extreme conditions, it was surprising to observe that only some individuals demonstrated acts of heroism and divinity, while others succumbed to selfishness and cunning, prioritizing their own interests and resorting to deception to get ahead. In a brutal capitalist mindset where the focus is on winning at any cost, it is hard to imagine that there are those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. These heroic individuals exhibited a strength that surpassed the physical and material, representing the true essence of resilience. Viktor Frankl was amazed and even felt a sense of awe witnessing these extraordinary acts of selflessness.

It is interesting to note that the dichotomy of selfishness and selflessness can be observed in normal situations, without the extreme circumstances of a concentration camp. People exhibit these two types of actions depending on how they perceive their lives. Even in mild conditions, some act selfishly while others act selflessly. Our worldview and perception of life can lead us to despair and hatred, causing harm to ourselves and others, or to compassion and sacrifice, leading us to help others. External conditions are not the only determining factor in our behavior. Frankl reflected on his experiences and observations and identified common categories that heroic people attribute to their actions.

  1. Compassion: Heroic individuals often have a deep sense of compassion for others, which motivates them to put the needs of others before their own. They may sacrifice their own comfort or safety to help someone in need, even when doing so is difficult or risky.
  2. Purpose: Heroic individuals often have a strong sense of purpose or mission that gives their lives meaning and direction. This sense of purpose can motivate them to take bold actions or make sacrifices in pursuit of their goals.
  3. Integrity: Heroic individuals often possess a strong sense of integrity and moral courage. They are willing to stand up for what they believe in, even when doing so is unpopular or risky, and they are not afraid to speak the truth to power or challenge unjust systems.

Not all heroic individuals who exhibit selflessness and sacrifice were necessarily survivors of extreme conditions such as concentration camps, where survival of the fittest was crucial. Some of these heroes perished because they chose to share their meager resources with others, while others may have fallen victim to the collateral damage caused by selfish acts of others. Moreover, it is important to recognize that even in less extreme situations, these same heroic individuals may not necessarily achieve success in a world that promotes cutthroat competition and prioritizes self-interest.

Despite this, the transformative power of such acts is undeniable. Viktor Frankl, for instance, was profoundly impacted by the selflessness and sacrifice he witnessed in the concentration camps, which ultimately led him to develop his own theory of meaning and purpose. Similarly, the apostles who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ were able to understand the will of God through his sacrifice and experienced the transformative power of his resurrection.

These experiences fundamentally changed the way in which these individuals perceived the world and their place in it. It shifted their priorities and values and transformed their understanding of what it means to live a meaningful and purposeful life. In essence, their worldview was turned upside down, revealing a deeper truth that transcends the conventional notions of success and prosperity.

Thus, Frankl developed a unique form of therapy known as logotherapy. Its primary objective is to help individuals find meaning and purpose in their lives. The therapeutic approach involves exploring an individual’s values, beliefs, and relationships and encouraging them to take responsibility for their lives, even in challenging situations. The term “logotherapy” is derived from the Greek word “logos,” meaning “meaning.” According to Frankl, an individual can discover meaning through three ways: work, love, and suffering. Therefore, logotherapy stresses the significance of personal responsibility and meaning-making in leading a fulfilling life.

In the Gospel of John, it starts as follows: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

John 1:1-5

In these verses, “Word” refers to the Greek concept of “Λόγος” (Logos), which suggests that the world we inhabit is not a mere product of chance but is imbued with significance. The world, along with life, and your life, in particular, holds meaning. Once you discern the meaning in your life, you can access the light that shines through the darkness. This message aligns with Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which asserts that life has inherent meaning (logos) even in the most difficult and painful circumstances. We possess the freedom to discover meaning and purpose in our lives, regardless of external situations or constraints. Our will to meaning, a natural inclination to seek significance in our lives, is equivalent to faith.

Image by Barak Broitman

2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life

  1. Great writing. A couple thoughts from my simple philosophy come to mind,

    “The meaning of Life is,
    that U can B Somebody.”

    “If there can be anything,
    why can’t there be everything?”

    You mentioned quite a bit about how people treated each other and how people suffered. I know you know, but can’t help being reminded of that upmost simple philosophy,

    “Treat your brother the way you want to be treated. This sums up the the laws and the prophets.”

    Now there is a simple philosophy that can carry each of us through eternity.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments related to the insights on your blog! I agree. By understanding the meaning of life, we can discover who we are and perceive the interconnectedness of everyone, realizing that we should treat others as we treat ourselves. The Golden Rule is a natural revelation for those who uncover the meaning of life: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s