Man's Search For Meaning

Arrival of a Convoy by David Olère

Arrival of a Convoy by David Olère

I started this book when I was going through a whirlwind of emotions returning home from the US. I fought hard as an international student for 2 years in the states, with only one goal in mind: to get a job in FAANG and build a life there. I got a taste of it. Two summer internships in the bay where I collected people and experiences. I had a spot waiting for me after graduating. I could see the life I could've had. Instead of 12-weeks counting down before running out of time to complete your projects, the responsibility will be greater, the projects will be harder, and the days will be longer. But the relationships will flourish, new friendships will sprout, and novel experiences will continue to be collected. But I had to choose between my health and my future.

I was halfway through the book sitting at the Gastroenterology branch of the hospital, wondering why I'm the youngest person waiting to get an endoscope done. I felt life was unfair and pondered why all this was happening to me, trying to make sense of the all the suffering (of the mind). I was immersed in the book up to the point where the nurses asked me leave my belongings and wheeled my bed into the room.

I finished reading two weeks later, in the car at a dim parking lot of an old mall waiting for my parents to shop for groceries. The mall where I used to have McDonald's ice cream and sweet potato fries from Nandos, play arcade games, get haircuts, and shop for clothes. A time when I was younger and healthier, and happier, unaware of what's to come in 2021.

Now I'm writing a summary of it after at the end of this month, where half of it was spent visiting 8 doctors across 3 specializations in 8 different hospitals and clinics, still in pain from the 8 teeth extractions I had the day before.

So that was my January. It was fulfilling in a way that I got to take back control of my life. My diseases determined my every action, and I felt really trapped. It was suffocating. I have free will again.

Aside from the tragic and bone-chilling accounts that Dr Frankl shared during his personal experience at the concentration camps, this book helped me make sense of suffering.

Below are some quotes on suffering I want to capture and internalize from reading this book, in bullet points.

  • central theme of existentialism: to life is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.
  • Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how"
  • Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress
  • 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
  • Dostoevski said once: "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings"
  • If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.
  • Here lies the chance for a man to either make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not
  • Everywhere man is confronted with fate, with the chance of achieving something through his own suffering
  • an exceptionally difficult external situation gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.
  • "life is like being at the dentist. You always think the worst is still to come, yet it is over already."
  • It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
  • I kept thinking of endless little problems of our miserable life ... I became disgusted with teh state of affairs which compelled me, daily and hourly, to think of only such trivial things. I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject ... All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from a viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the sufferings of the moment. I observed them as if they were already of the past.
  • Spinoza: "Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.
  • "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. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in the right action and conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and fulfill the tasks which ti constantly sets for each individual."
  • "When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task ... No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
  • Rilke: "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!" (How much suffering there is to get through!). He spoke of "getting through suffering" as others would talk of "getting through work". There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering.
  • tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
  • To talk people out of suicide: "it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from then; something in the future was expected of them.
  • The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much it does on human love.
  • A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.
  • whatever we had gone through could still be an asset to us in the future. Nietzsche: "Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker." (That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.)
  • "Was Du erlebt, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben" (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you) ... Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.
  • Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.
  • Someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours – a friend, a wife, somebody alive or dead, or a God – and would hope to find us suffering proudly – not miserably – knowing how to die
  • will to meaning
    • the striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man. In contrast to the will to pleasure (Freudian psychoanalysis) and will to power (Adlerian psychology)
    • meaning is not self-expression or projection, it is not only an emergence from existence itself, but something confronting existence. Meaning is not invented by ourselves, rather detected.
    • Values do not drive a man, they do not push him, but rather pull him
    • Man is never driven to moral behaviour; in each instance he decides to behave morally ... he does not do it to have a good conscience; he does so for the sake of a cause to which he commits to himself, or for a person who he loves, or for the sake of his God. If he did it for the sake of a good conscience, he would have become a Pharisee and cease to be a truly moral person.
  • suffering is an achievement
    • not every conflict is necessarily neurotic, some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. Suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon, rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if it grows out of existential frustration. A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is a spiritual distress but by no means a mental disease.
    • man's search for meaning and values may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely this tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.
    • mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish
    • What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.
  • existential vacuum
    • no instincts tells him what he has to do; and no tradition tells him what he oughts to do; sometimes he doesn't even know what he wishes to do.
    • Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism)
    • manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom
    • Schopenhauer: Mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between two extremes of distress and boredom
    • boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than is distress
    • "Sunday neurosis" the kind of depression that afflicts people who become aware of the lack of contentment in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves manifest.
  • Meaning of life
    • there is no best move in chess, same holds for human existence, one should not search for an abstract meaning of life.
    • everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment
    • man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked
    • each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
  • essence of existence
    • "So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!"
    • such a precept confronts him with life's finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.
    • man must actualize the potential meaning of his life. true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man
    • human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self actualization is not a possible aim at all, the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. self actualization is a side effect of self-transcendence.
  • 3 ways to discover meaning
    • (1) doing a deed
      • by way of achievement or accomplishment
    • (2) experiencing a value
      • experience something, work of nature or culture, and by experiencing someone i.e. Love
      • Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality
      • no one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.
      • By the spiritual act of love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, that which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized.
    • (3) by suffering
      • "whenever one is confronted with an inescapable, unavoidable situation, whenever one has to face a fate that cannot be changed, then is one given a last change to actualize the highest value, to fulfill the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering.
      • what matters above all is the attitude we take toward suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves.
      • Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
      • Traditional psychotherapy aims to restore one's capacity to work and to enjoy life, logotherapy includes these, and goes further to have the patient regain the ability to suffer, if need be, thereby finding meaning even in suffering
      • our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy
      • the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading. "he is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy"
      • What never can be ruled out in life is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end. In other words, life's meaning is an unconditional one, for it even includes the potential meaning of suffering.
      • "Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning?"