In his famous memory study, Frederic Bartlett asked subjects to recall unfamiliar Native American folk tales. He found that memory consisted of more than finding a file hidden somewhere in your brain. Rather, it was an act of reconstruction: subjects unconsciously changed the material, for example, by supplying missing rationalizations for the characters' behavior, changing causal connections and imposing a more western order on the material. In other words, their memory was guided less by what actually had been presented to them than by what was personally or culturally meaningful to them. The existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl went on to suggest more generally that the need for meaning is a crucial force in people, from the time they're born until their last breath. He continued to feel this way when his family was murdered by the Nazis and he himself was sent to Auschwitz.
Existentialist thinkers such as Frankl view suffering as a potential springboard both for having a need for meaning and for finding it. As one breast cancer patient reported in a study by Suzanne Thompson, "I feel as if I were for the first time really conscious. My life is framed in a certain amount of time. I always knew it. But I can see it, and it's made better by the knowledge" (p. 1163). Frankl likes to quote Nietzche's remark that "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how."
Ironically, "meaning" is a tough word to pin down, because it has emotional and cognitive elements. But one definition, by Gary Reker and Phillip Wong, nicely ties together the different aspects of meaning: "the cognizance of order, coherence and purpose in one's existence, the pursuit and attainment of worthwhile goals, and an accompanying sense of fulfillment." One thing to keep in mind is that this sense of fulfillment is not necessarily the same as a religious experience; while our sense of order may derive from a predisposing belief in the existence of god, it is also possible to perceive order or purpose in the natural order without such a predisposing belief system. Another way of thinking of meaning is a time when you've felt particularly alive; or an experience that felt worth living for; or a time whey you've felt either particularly fulfilled or purposeful.
Frankl suggested three basic sources for a sense of meaning -- creative, experiential and attitudinal.
Examples of creative sources include our work, or artistic pursuits, or causes in which we believe and in whose name we act.
The experiential source of meaning refers to valued experiences or "encounters," or what Samuel Beckett refers to as "..the beauty of the way. And the goodness of the wayfarers." A primary example is the experience of love for others. Thus, a number of studies suggest that social support is one of the most important variables associated with helping patients adjust to cancer.
Another instance of meaning through experience relates to the ability to appreciate beauty in nature or art. Something as simple as seeing a beautiful flower or sunset, or experiencing a kindness from another person can be enough to feel a sense of meaning. In Mans' Search for Meaning, for instance, Frankl eloquently described moments when he and his fellow inmates experienced the beauty of the mountains of Salzburg or a particularly vivid sunset. They found solace in the fact that whatever their individual fates, the beauty of nature, of which they were a part, would continue. They further seemed to find a meta-cognitive solace in the idea that their continued ability to appreciate moments of beauty transcended the dehumanization of their situation. Sometimes, prisoners put on a cabaret show and other prisoners attended despite their intense fatigue or the fact that they might miss their daily portion of food by going.
Though not in Frankl's list of sources of meaning, humor is also important. It helps us to rise above our troubles, at times in the opposite way. Rather than melding with something larger than ourselves, humor often forces us to look at our situation from a distance, and separating ourselves from it. Being able to find and express humor is an important way of feeling one's own presence in the world, and can also help us define our own values. Frankl made an exercise for himself and his patient, to find a funny story to tell every day-in Auschwitz.
The third source of meaning is the attitude with which we bear suffering that's unavoidable. Often, the first thing we do in a crisis is to judge what, if anything, we can do to fix the problem. But what if it isn't fixable? In that case, the one kind of control we can exert is in adapting our attitude to this new reality. Similar to the old idea of turning lemons into lemonade, Frankl suggests that the one freedom left to us is the freedom to choose our attitude in bearing our suffering.
So what does that mean? For instance, it might include being a role model for others dealing with the same problem, or using our suffering as a catalyst for changing for the better some aspect of our lives. Park and Folkman found that changing the meaning of a problem is the most common method of coping in unavoidable situations. People cite the impetus to change their priorities, learn about what is truly important to them, and gain a new perspective. Even just the fact of coping itself might give someone a sense of meaning and pride.
People live in a historical context-there is a story to our lives. In one sense, we are the lead characters, with the people around us in supporting roles, and with scenery, plots and lessons learned. In another sense, though, we may choose to cast ourselves in the supporting role, focusing on what others mean to us and need from us. "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how" -- this why springs out of who we are, our values, both realized and not, and our goals. Recognizing the goals we've already achieved can help buffer against despair. Even more, telling our story connects one with the people around us, and we can continue to feel that sense of a connectedness, whether or not other people are actually physically around us
Thinking about the story of our lives helps us reflect back on what we have found meaningful or joyful, which concrete tasks we have undertaken, and may suggest further goals we might want to set for ourselves now. These tasks can be in any realm -- stories to write, children to care for, lessons to learn or teach, relationships to attend to, artistic endeavors such as painting or sculpture, etc. Meaning can be found in the very act of bearing witness to the events of our lives. The most important thing, is that these tasks feel meaningful to the person setting out to fulfill them. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of them.
It is the knowledge that we're born with an expiration date that drives our need for a sense of meaning or purpose in life to begin with. Learning to cope with our limitations is what allows us to appreciate those things that we do have. It is the knowledge of the potential nastiness of life that reminds to make the most of the time we have, regardless of how short of long that might turn out to be. Like Bartlett's subjects, it is we who impose a sense of meaning on the events of our lives, not the other way around. And we can draw a sense of purpose and control from the most unusual places.
In their classic study of geriatric patients, Judith Rodin and her colleagues found that even a simple task - having to care for a plant - significantly increased the quality of life for nursing home residents, including not only their psychological well-being but their physical health as well.
Frankl, for instance, felt that one of the things that helped him to cope with and ultimately survive his concentration camp experience, was his feeling responsible for publishing the manuscript that was destroyed upon his arrival there, and to lecture at universities about the psychology of the concentration camp experience.
And that same feeling helped me cope with my own cancer treatment a few years ago, as I felt responsible for writing about what I had learned from my experiences on both sides of the hospital bed. As I'm doing right now. If I've learned nothing else from my experiences, this would have been enough: that there are moments worth living a lifetime for, no matter what happens next.
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