The Santa Clara
January 24, 2019
My Uncle Pete told me during family dinner, “College was the happiest time of my life. Life only goes downhill from there, so enjoy these years.”
But I have never felt so anxious and overwhelmed. Grades, relationships, sports, job … shouldn’t I be happier? Shouldn’t I want to be happier?
In our modern self-obsessed world, it is almost heresy to suggest perhaps not. Instead, our ultimate goal should be fulfillment—to live our lives with a purpose, with meaning.
No book addressed that question better than one published 76 years ago. Its message—life is a quest for meaning—is more relevant than ever. In this age of anxiety, a time when more college students are feeling depressed, it is time to give that volume a revisit.
“Man’s Search For Meaning” was published by psychologist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. During his imprisonment at a concentration camp, Frankl found purpose in suffering, caring for others and finishing his manuscript on psychotherapy. Looking back, Frankl realized this pursuit of purpose made him hopeful when many of his fellow prisoners resigned themselves to a state of meaninglessness before dying in despair.
As a psychotherapist, Frankl encouraged other prisoners to see that life expected something from each prisoner. To survive, he came to understand that prisoners had to see value in their lives even as the Nazis degraded them to mere animals: shaving them from head to toe, confiscating their personal belongings and forcing them to perform back-breaking manual labor—until all that was left was their “naked existence.” Many prisoners gave up hope and committed suicide by running into the electrical barbed wires surrounding the camps.
Frankl counseled his fellow prisoners not to ask what the meaning of life was, but to instead think of themselves as “those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly.”
Whether it was the hope of reuniting with a loved one or fulfilling their professional careers, each prisoner had to discover his or her true calling—and such pursuit, even in this hell, would keep them alive. Frankl quotes German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why can bear any how.”
Each prisoner’s unique calling gave them reasons to live. No matter how extreme the misery and humiliation the Nazis inflicted upon them, they couldn’t strip the prisoners of their identities or erase their destinies. Frankl counseled a prisoner who was contemplating suicide and discovered he was a father, the father of a daughter living in a foreign country, awaiting his return. And when Frankl was sent to Auschwitz, he was separated from his wife yet often thought about her. His dream of reuniting with her gave him the strength to live through his horror. When Frankl lost his manuscript on psychotherapy at the camp, he dreamed of rewriting and publishing it after his liberation—lecturing at universities and teaching students about the psychology of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Each prisoner’s destiny gave them the hope and strength to live through their sufferings.
Frankl saw purpose admist suffering. He witnessed prisoners who acted in ways that helped them overcome their awful situations, achieving an inner fulfillment even on the eve of death. For example, he met a young woman who knew she would die soon.
From her window, she could see the branch of a chestnut tree with two blossoms. She often talked to the tree in her loneliness, realizing that there was beauty in the face of death.
“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she said to Frankl. “In my former life I was spoilt and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.”
Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning ” inspires us to view the challenges that we face in college as a path toward a more fulfilling life, a life of meaning. Managing academic work, building relationships and paving a career path—these are the intricacies of college life that we must navigate, challenges that can make us feel stressed, anxious and unhappy, even here in the “Claradise” of palm trees and sunshine. When such feelings are unavoidable, what we need is a value system that can guide us toward a purposeful life. One in which happiness is a by-product of such pursuit, not its goal—only then can we bear our burdens with purpose.
When we find meaning in our tasks “daily and hourly,” our responsibilities become purposeful. And as students, too often do we write essays for the sake of finishing a homework assignment, when writing is an ideal opportunity for us to learn how to think and articulate.
Too often do we take classes for the sake of fulfilling a core requirement, when classes are opportunities for us to learn how to read and speak. It is only when we see value in our classes that we can remain motivated in spite of the stress of midterms and finals without becoming nihilistic and embittered.
Only then can we stand proudly on the podium on graduation day, knowing we have achieved an inner fulfillment, a spiritual accomplishment which Frankl sees as an indelible triumph.
Every generation since has rediscovered and cherished “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It is our turn—and as students in college, it couldn’t come at a better time.
Nicholas Chan is a junior economics major.