A Person Needs a Purpose

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What is the most powerful human need? Aside from food, water and air, what do we hunger for?  According to Viktor Frankl, we crave, above all, to have a sense of purpose.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and the founder of a method of treatment called Logotherapy (after logos, the Greek word for “meaning.”) He began developing his theories while working in suicide prevention during the 1920‘s and 30‘s. His insights were tested and refined in the fires of the Nazi Holocaust. Frankl lost his parents, his brother and his pregnant wife. He himself was imprisoned in four different concentrations camps, including Auschwitz.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl described a moment when the memory of his wife’s face lifted him above the misery of forced labor in the bitter cold:

 Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. (Man’s Search for Meaning, 23rd printing, 1974, p. 58-59)

Among his fellow prisoners in the camps, Frankl noticed that the ones most likely to survive were those who believed that an important, unfinished duty awaited them. As Frankl wrote, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will  never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.” (ibid., p.127)

After the war, Dr. Frankl helped his psychiatric patients identify and pursue their life’s purpose. For each patient, the purpose was unique: a task or a role that could be fulfilled by that person alone. Once a patient latched onto a firm sense of purpose, the psychological problems often resolved themselves.

By contrast, when a person’s search for meaning is blocked, depression results. “Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss.”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy)

Modern life pushes us to keep busy doing things without taking time to ponder why we are doing them. If Viktor Frankl was right, what we do is not nearly as important as why we do it.

Read more about Dr. Frankl’s thought-provoking insights at:

http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/frankl.html

Better yet, read Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning  in which he described his concentration camp experiences and the basic theories of Logotherapy. (Available on Amazon)

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