Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I go back to each time I find myself in a dark and challenging situation in life. The book has taught, and continues to teach me this, purpose, meaning and joy can be found in the most challenging of situations. The author himself found that he could find meaning in the darkest times – in a concentration camp – devoid of the most basic human freedoms. He tells us that meaning can be found in the small things, a bird, a sunset and helping his fellow inmates heal and smile. He says,
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.Viktor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning.
The attitude that we adopt to the external situations determine the quality of life. Period. And this attitude can be brought to any hard or harsh situation – death, divorce, breakups, financial instability, pretty much anything. But how can we adopt such an attitude? Don’t external things and situations affect our mental well-being? Don’t we need all our desires to be met in order for us to be happy? Shouldn’t we expect all this from life? Frankl says, no.
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly…. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.ibid
And that is the attitude that we must adopt. We must stop asking “Why did life do this to me?“. Instead life is asking us, “What will you do, now that this terrible thing has happened?“. This is a fundamental shift in the way we approach life. We move from a feeling of being entitled to happiness, pleasure and comfort to taking responsibility to build the life that we want to lead. Remember, your actions may not result in the goals that you set out to achieve. But what matters is that you adopted the attitude of trying, of solving the situation. Frankl could have died in the camp, but what mattered was how he lived and not how he died. We must learn to stand firm in the fact that we tried. We praise the effort and not the result.
The question that comes to most of our minds is this. How can I keep aside my suffering and then choose to take responsibility? This is indeed a valid question. A person who is suffering, cannot begin to take responsibility for one’s life. Such a person always feels that (s)he has been wronged by life. If we are in this state how do we begin to take responsibility?
Acceptance. Sit down with yourself and give yourself the permission to feel wronged by life. When we fully and consciously accept this feeling that life has wronged us, something interesting begins to happen. Because of this conscious allowing, we begin to recover our power to will, the power to choose. Whenever our emotions get the best of us, we must sit down and ask ourselves, “What is it that is making me sad”. Completely agree and allow this feeling of sadness to exist in us. We must not debate it, not rationalize it, not pity ourselves. Just allow it. We take responsibility for its existence in us and we become comfortable in its presence.
On the other side, there are others who don’t appear to suffer. They have the ability to shrug off failures. They ‘laugh it off’. Are such people truly free? No. As Frankl says, “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” Escapists i.e. people who run away from challenging situations do not take responsibility to solve the situation. And while they may look happy and relaxed on the outside, they remain in anxiety and regret. Regret and sadness when they remember how they ‘ran away’ from the situation. Anxiety because they are afraid. What if a similar situation comes up? How will I handle it? Take an example: let’s say I run away from a relationship because it does not agree with some of my ideas. Then, when I look back on this a few years from now, I have a sense of regret and sadness. I also have an anxiety, because I did not learn how to cope with the situation. Because we are in a constant avoidance, we are running away from life. We do not take responsibility. And thus, there cannot be true mental freedom.
Through acceptance, comes responsibility. Through responsibility comes the ability to choose one’s attitude in situations. This is true freedom. Not otherwise.
Whenever faced with a challenging life situation, before feeling sorry, or before running away from it – ask yourself this – What can I bring to the situation to make it better? Certainly, the outcome may not be as we desired it, but we feel a sense of solidarity that we tried, and we stand on those values of being a person who had the courage not to give up.