In 1944, a 39-year-old Austrian man named Victor Frankl and his wife Tilly were processed into the Auschwitz concentration camp.
He spent approximately 18 months in the shackles of the Nazis being shuttled from one camp to another before being liberated by American soldiers. Frankl survived the Holocaust, but his wife, mother, and brother did not.
Despite suffering such great trauma, Frankl went on to become one of the most influential neurologists and psychiatrists of the 20th century.
In fact, spending time in captivity, experiencing suffering and deprivation, and watching some prisoners transcend their circumstances while others succumbed to them, is what inspired Frankl to explore life’s meaning and develop a renowned technique called “logotherapy.”
Frankl gained his most important insight during his lowest moment by observing human resilience. He then taught others how to find meaning in life even in the harshest conditions.
Find Meaning Through Limitations
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” wrote Frankl. The search for meaning, Frankl believed, is humanity’s primary motivator.
Frankl, of course, isn’t the first to explore life’s big question: Why are we here? For thousands of years, religious and secular scholars have attempted to answer this question. As Frankl observed, “Religion is the ultimate search for meaning.”
Frankl noted that finding the “ultimate meaning” of life “necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man.” But, as he observed, the struggle to make sense of it all is what makes life meaningful. Sigmund Freud believed that humans are motivated by their desire for pleasure. Frankl disagreed with Freud—he believed that life’s purpose is derived not from pleasure but from meaning.
Discover Purpose in the Struggle
The Buddha described suffering as the most enduring of human conditions. This suffering comes from limitations—in terms of health, happiness, relationships, and basic needs. Humans suffer, at times intolerably.
But in the face of these limitations, we can discover meaning.
We find meaning in the struggle, not in spite of it. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” In other words, the darker the shadows we experience, the brighter the sun on the other side.
We are “meant” to struggle because it’s what leads us to learn and grow if we seek meaning rather than lament our lack of pleasure.
Self-awareness of our own limitations can give us insight and empathy. If our limitations aren’t as severe as those of others, or if we’ve been fortunate enough to overcome them, we find the need to be of service.
“The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it,” noted Helen Keller.
Turn Lemons Into Lemonade
A life without struggle, without a challenge, feels empty. Challenge is the resistance that makes us stronger, forces us to grow. It is the weight we curl to strengthen our mental biceps. A life without this is doomed to self-indulgence. Frankl observed that as societies increase their material comfort, they experience a deterioration of the mental and emotional state of their members. Frankl coined the term “existential vacuum,” which he described as “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaningless,” to describe this condition.
If we define ourselves by what we have and not by who we are and what we do, we become trapped by our limitations, not set free by them.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus counseled us to “live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.” To the extent that we suffer hardship, Epictetus urged us to look back, find the positives, and make use of what happened.
“Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths,” he said.
Frankl, in his seminal book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
A Happy Life
The cognizance of limitations is what drives us to seek out new experiences.
There’s a concept in psychology called the “mere exposure effect” that biases us toward familiarity. It’s a survival mechanism built into us. Our ancestors were more likely to survive if they approached people and engaged in experiences that they perceived as non-life-threatening, so they stuck with what they knew.
Mere survival is far less a concern in our modern world, but we still tend toward familiarity. It’s what gets us stuck in the rut of routine, especially as we get older.
By recognizing these limitations, however, we can break free of them and pursue new and novel experiences that lead to a rich and rewarding life.
First moments provide the fuel for an interesting and happy life. If we recognize our tendencies toward the familiar, we then have the power to pursue the extraordinary.
“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser,” said John Gardner.
Understanding and appreciating limitations is an important component of a happy life. It’s important to dream big, but equally important to find as much contentment in the pursuit of dreams as you do in the realization of them.
Things rarely go as planned, so if you get too caught up in your vision of what an idyllic life should look like, you’ll often find yourself trapped in a sticky web of unrealistically high expectations.
In other words, you need to learn to love the process of life—which is full of struggles and marked by obstacles—as much as you love dreaming up ideas about what an ideal life might look like. Happiness is found in life’s journey, not necessarily in its destination.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.