One of the most fundamental truths in life is that we all will face our respective share of hardship, difficulty and suffering. We are fragile mortal beings subject to illness, loss, heartbreak and disappointment.
Given this shared fate, how can we best endure and embrace our adversities?
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is a compilation of lectures given by Victor Frankl in 1946, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust. Speaking from direct experience from his time in the concentration camps, as well as from his insights working as a psychologist, Frankl reflects on the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.
This short yet profound book reminds us of the power of perspective, demonstrating how we can always find the resilience we need within to keep on moving forward in any circumstance.
In this post I want to look at three key themes from the book.
Meaning Is More Important Than Pleasure
Our modern consumerist societies try to sell us on the idea that happiness can be bought. Savvy advertisements persuade us consumers that contentment and fulfillment in life can be realized only when we purchase that luxury car or piece of clothing.
After all, just look at how happy that family is driving the latest Mercedes SUV in that commercial?
Although these consumer goods may give us short-term satisfaction, the excitement quickly dissipates as we are left craving for more.
Frankl argues that while pleasure comes and goes, it is meaning in life that allows us to endure and overcome the challenges we succumb to. By having an overarching purpose or meaning in one’s life, we can find long lasting fulfillment. This is what truly nourishes and sustains us.
Frankl notes that although meaning can be found in a wide range of circumstances, it generally falls into three broad categories:
- Active: Creating, acting upon or bringing something into existence. This can include devoting oneself to their work, or pursuing one’s hobbies and passion projects.
- Passive: Appreciating the world around us, namely through art, nature or by loving others.
- Acceptance: Finding meaning and growth through accepting one’s difficulties and putting them into perspective. Frankl echoes the Stoic maxim that while many of the circumstances in our life are outside of our control, we always have the freedom to decide how we react to and interpret these events.
For Frankl, meaning in life is not an inquiry that can be answered broadly or generally. Given the difference in life situations and demands for every individual, there is no ‘one’ answer that is adequate or applicable to everyone.
Rather, each of our lives poses a distinct set of questions that require answers. Every new beginning, adversity or challenge presents an opportunity to find meaning. It is through our unique answers to life’s questions that we find purpose and become authentic human beings – separating ourselves from the crowd.
We must therefore always be aware of how we can use each occasion we are presented to in life as a potential learning experience or lesson. Each of these moments, offers us chance to use it as fuel in working towards a greater goal.
As Frankl writes,
We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life.
Through becoming authentic individuals, we can come to a greater appreciation of what we can distinctly offer the world.
Being irreplaceable, it is only ‘you’ who can offer humanity your unique gifts.
Taking Responsibility for Life
We all desire freedom, but very few of us want to take on the responsibility for our actions.
It is true that each of us are dealt different cards in life. We all have experiences where things don’t go our way, when we are treated unfairly or succumb to an illness out of mere chance.
However, in each of these circumstances what can be more powerful than embracing, overcoming and saying ‘yes to life’. Of course, you didn’t choose this, maybe the predicament you are in wasn’t even your fault, but nonetheless you have two options – you can either change it or accept it.
By accepting the responsibility and burdens of life’s duties, we gradually become more resilient. We grow in courage and in character – one small step at a time.
Yes to Life is a powerful reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Amidst even the most dire of situations, we can always find a reason to keep pushing through.
In an increasingly complex and fast-paced world, the future remains riddled with uncertainty. Rather than placing our hopes on external things which we don’t control, Frankl reminds us that we are always free to cultivate one’s inner life. Finding meaning, purpose and perspective in every situation is something that cannot be taken away from us.
To say ‘yes to life’ is to nurture an attitude of acceptance, and continue to hold your ground in the eye of the storm.
This of course is not for the faint of heart, but we can all look to Victor Frankl for inspiration.
A wonderful review on Yes to Life which inspired me to read this book can be found on brainpickings.org here.