The meaning of it all

Sometimes when you work the crisis hotline, you get exactly the call that’s meant for you.

Maybe it sounds backwards. Of course, as crisis counselors, we’re there for the people who call in above everything else. We field all kinds of calls, from the intense suicide intervention calls to calls from people trying to escape to domestic abuse to calls from people who are just angry about the day they had or people who are simply lonely and want to chat with someone. We do our best to talk them down from the ledge – literally and figuratively. Often, simply the act of talking it over with someone who is actually listening makes all the difference.

But sometimes, it’s not only the caller who gets help. Sometimes, by a quirk of luck the universe throws my way, I get a call from someone who helps me as much as I hope to help them.

It was just two days after my layoff. The day I got axed, I came home to find three inches of water in the basement and a broken waterline outside the home. Water had been turned off to the house. I was jobless and homeless – at least for the time being. I don’t know that it was a great idea for me to provide any kind of crisis counseling at that point, because I was probably more in need of it than many of the callers we get. But the shift schedule must be upheld, and I’d volunteered for this shift long before fate rained down misfortune on me.

The caller herself was afraid for her job. She had called in because she had a meeting with her boss the following day and she thought she might be laid off. There were other problems in her life as well – arguments with family, friends who took less than they gave – but the job situation is what worried her the most.

I held my breath listening to her talk about her workplace. I was trying to force back memories of what I’d been through just two days before. I held my breath because if I didn’t, she might hear me crying for the both of us. Finally, I gave in to the voice in the back of my head that told me it would be OK to share what I had gone through.

“I’m so sorry that you’re facing this,” I told her. “I went through the same kind of thing this week myself.”

She answered hopefully. “Did it come out alright?”

I felt a pang of guilt for having mentioned it now. “No.” I paused. “I was laid off.”

Now it was her turn to comfort me. It’s amazing how people can do that, how in the midst of their own suffering they will reach out to help someone else.

“I’m so sad to hear that,” she said. “I wish it would have turned out better for you.”

I agreed, and we were both quiet for a few seconds before she began talking again.

“I like to think that all the things we go through have some purpose,” she said. “I like to think that I can use what I go through for something good.”

She explained that she thought that the uncertainty at work, and perhaps her future unemployment, would help her understand other people in the same situation in the future. Years from now, when hopefully she is happily and securely employed, she will remember what it was like to fear for her livelihood. She will be more understanding of others she comes across who know the same panic and grief. She will be able to help them because she had been there herself, and she can empathize with what they are going through. And by doing so, her suffering will have meaning.

“I believe that too,” I said.

But it was more than just that. Her words were healing for me. I’d had similar thoughts myself before, and it’s an idea I strongly believe in. What a great thing it is to take all the tribulation and turn it into something truly good.

Neither she nor I invented the concept, of course. I doubt Viktor Frankl did either, though he’s the one who truly delved into the idea and transformed it into a philosophy of counseling. He called it logotherapy, or healing through meaning. And according to him, it’s this drive to find meaning in life, even in the suffering of life, that is man’s greatest quest.

Frankl must have been an extremely courageous man. Born a Jew in Vienna, he endured years in Nazi concentration camps. He lost his entire family – mother, father and wife – to them. No one would have blamed him if this had made him a bitter and angry man. But it didn’t. Even in the midst of it, Frankl held onto to the idea that his suffering was not for nothing.

In the camps, he heard over and over again people saying that their suffering had no meaning if they didn’t survive. After all, what’s the point of enduring such inhuman treatment only to succumb to it? But he saw it differently. Instead, Frankl said that if the suffering had no meaning, then why bother surviving? He turned suffering on its ear. It was no longer something to be merely endured, but to be respected.

Their question was, “Will we survive the camp? For, if not, all this suffering has no meaning.” The question which beset me was, “Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance — as whether one escapes or not — ultimately would not be worth living at all.” (Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” p. 138)

Frankl recognized that even in the most atrocious situations, as long as man has consciousness he has some freedom as well. Barbed wire and armed guards could imprison his body, but no one could take away his mind. The Nazis may have put him in the most horrific conditions imaginable, but they could not force him to experience it as meaningless or hopeless. The spirit cannot be fettered.

This approach certainly sounds like a lot to ask of anyone, much less a Holocaust survivor. And I can easily see how it might sound callous or arrogant to suggest to a suffering person that their suffering has a purpose. But like Frankl, I want to make even the hardest and darkest parts of my life have meaning.

Of course, Frankl doesn’t propose that suffering is the only avenue toward meaning. Meaning can be found through a person’s work or relationships. Certainly love is meaningful. And he denies the existence of a universal meaning of life. Meaning is specific to the individual, and what is meaningful for one person might not be for the next. Therefore, each person must seek out their own meaning in life.

This is my nutshell of Frankl’s “Logotherapy in a Nutshell.” I’m sure there are many points that I’ve left out but should have included, and I’m certain others could describe it far more eloquently. I encourage you to read the book.

While I can’t claim to be an expert on logotherapy (but look on the links on my main page to find people who are), I do know that in my own life, the worst crises I’ve ever had were crises of meaning. It’s when I don’t know what my purpose is that I am the most vulnerable to despair. When I have a meaning, I endure. As Frankl put it, if you have a why, you can withstand any what.

I hear the same theme echoed by many of my clients. They’ve lost touch with who they are and with what made life meaningful. For them, life has become a bleak and pointless series of days. One, who lost is children in a bitter divorce, said he felt lost. But he voiced hope that his children will seek him out once they turn 18, and that he wants his life to be in order by then so that he can welcome them back. Bettering himself so that he can reunite with his children gives his life meaning, and you can see it in the way his face lights up when he talks about it.

I’ve had times when I struggled with meaningless and felt it most keenly when I came to terms with my own childlessness. Without a family of my own, I simply could not conceive of the meaning of life, either. It was a horrible time, the darkest time I’ve ever seen. And it was only by finding that meaning that I was able to find my way back. For me, like the caller, meaning is to be found in helping others. I may not leave behind children, but I hope that I will leave behind many people who I have helped live happier, fuller and richer lives, and that they, in turn, will be in a position to make life better for yet others. This is my antidote to despair. This is the why to any what life throws at me.

I think too many of us have lost touch with whatever it is that makes our life meaningful. It’s easy to do that in a world that offers endless distractions. It’s easy to forget meaning when our lives are cluttered with so many things that aren’t important. But for me, and I suspect many others, life truly becomes worth living when we reconnect with that thing that makes it meaningful.

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