In 1944, a 39-year-old Austrian man named Viktor Frankl and his wife Tilly were processed into the Auschwitz concentration camp. He spent approximately 18 months in the shackles of the Nazis, shuttled from one camp to another, before being liberated by American soldiers. Frankl survived the Holocaust, but his wife, mother, and brother didn’t.
Despite suffering such great trauma, Frankl went on to become one of the most important and influential neurologists and psychiatrists of the 20th century. In fact, it was the experience of spending time in captivity, experiencing suffering and deprivation, and watching some prisoners transcend their circumstances while others succumbed to them, that set Frankl on a path to explore life’s meaning and develop a renowned technique called “logotherapy” to help those in need overcome difficulty. Frankl’s big insight, which surfaced at his lowest moment, was gained by observing the resilience of humanity, and teaching others how to find meaning in life even in the harshest of conditions.
Frankl wrote, “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.” The search for meaning, Frankl believed, is the primary motivational factor of humans.
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. Frankl wrote that “religion is the ultimate search for meaning.” The search for meaning in a world full of hardship is a thread that has bound philosophical and spiritual study for thousands of years.
The search for clarity around existential questions is what leads us to keep searching, reading, writing, and thinking about the most ancient and enduring question: What is the purpose of life?
Is it enlightenment? Should we strive for self-actualization? Are we here to serve others? Is there no purpose? Are we just passing through?
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 and others disagreed with Freud—they believe that life’s purpose is derived not from life’s bounty, but rather from its limitations.
On the one hand, this seems like a gloomy outlook on life, because limitations lead to the type of pain and suffering that the Buddha described as the most enduring of human conditions. Because of limitations—in terms of health, happiness, relationships, and basic needs—humans suffer, at times intolerably.
On the other hand, limitations make life’s purpose worth fighting for. We find meaning because of 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 darkness we experience, the brighter the light on the other side of it. We are “meant” to struggle, because it’s what leads us to learn and grow.
Awareness of our own limitations is what calls us to help others. Because we struggle, we come to appreciate that others do, too. We learn to teach, and more importantly empathize with, others who face tough odds. If our limitations aren’t as severe as those of others, or if we’ve been fortunate enough to overcome them, then we’re called to service.
If we define ourselves by what we have, and not by who we are and what we do, then 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 and find the positive takeaways from what happened.
According to Epictetus: “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.”
The last nine months has been a period of mighty struggle for many. And more hardship awaits. But if there’s one silver lining to what we’ve endured, it’s that we will emerge stronger for having had this experience. We will have gained more clarity about what really matters in life, better relationships with those we care about, greater fortitude to overcome adversity, more empathy for others, and greater appreciation for the finite time we have left.
In this sense, the limits of life give us the essential reasons to grow, to exceed our current self and present situation. When we see life’s limitations as the ladder that allows us to climb, we can begin to understand how they can set us free.
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.