A Human Being Is a Finite Thing

Viktor Frankl and our responsibility to experience our lives

Moon is falling through the sky.

Cranes fly through clouds.

Wolves howl. I cannot find rest

Because I am powerless

To amend a broken world.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven

[Original post from Quarter Turn’s predecessor, You’re So Venn]

Man’s Search For Meaning

Today I’d like to share a book with, in preface to a story I have planned for next week. That book is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Do you know it?

Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years in four concentration camps, between 1942 and his liberation in the spring of 1945. In those years he lost his wife, his mother, his father, his brother. It was in 1946 that he wrote Man’s Search For Meaning, though it wasn’t released in English under that title until 1959.

His book is a powerful and moving account of one man's search for meaning and purpose in the face of the most unimaginable suffering.

“To be sure, a human being is a finite thing”

Frankl was a practicing psychiatrist before the war, and was already on a journey toward the specialty he eventually pioneered, which he called “logotherapy.” Logotherapy is about finding meaning, and has three main points:

  • Meaning is not the same as happiness

  • Meaning is not static—it evolves and changes with time and experience

  • Meaning can be found in the present moment, not in the past or the future

And Frankl is clear that each of us has the potential to find meaning only we can find, since each of us is unique, and finite. Whatever the phase or circumstances we find ourselves in, no one else can experience our lives for us.

And it’s our responsibility to experience our lives! In his view, there are three main ways of doing that:

  • by making a difference in the world—regardless of size

  • by having particular experiences of things like art, love, or nature

  • by adopting particular activities

Even if we are, like the opening quote above, powerless to amend a broken world, we have a choice in how we experience it.

Meaning is always evolving

We can find meaning in art, in music, in love. In nature, always. It is there, if we look. In each present moment.

And it isn’t just about the things we do, but about the unique and finite person we choose to be. The important thing is that as we evolve, so should the meaning we find: there is no single point of arrival, no single meaning.

This is why one of the best ways to find meaning is through service—because it’s not something done just once, but a way of approaching life. Frankl writes:

. . . being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning

Art, nature, love. Service. Even suffering.

They’re things that, past a certain age, we know can bring meaning and purpose to life. That much is no mystery. But the reminder is powerful that we can choose how to pursue and experience those things—even the very hard things—and that it’s our choices that leads us to meaning.

Next week will be a bit more on Frankl, and how his words were a needed reminder for me during a beautiful weekend in isolation, at the start of COVID lockdowns in 2020.

In the meantime, if you’d like to check out Man’s Search For Meaning you can find it here on Amazon.

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