A Reflection on the Meaning of Life
Remembering Viktor Frankl in the aftermath of Anthony Bourdain’s death.
Posted June 8, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I was only an 11-year-old child when I first stumbled upon Viktor E. Frankl’s book, Man's Search for Meaning, although the first edition of the same book in my native language was titled, And Why Didn't You Commit Suicide That Time?
Beyond its approachable thin frame, which was attractive to my 11-year-old intellect and reflective of my reading capacity, I was completely caught off guard by such a direct and profound question on a cover of the book. Of course, what I got out of Dr. Frankl’s work as a child was a great sense of admiration for this incredible human being who found a way to survive years in Nazi concentration camps, where, as a young man, he was subjected to the worst kinds of abuse.
Reading Man's Search for Meaning as an adult, many years later, I realized just how important and relevant Frank’s message was to us all. Frankl argued that, while we cannot control what happens to us in some circumstances, that we can — through acceptance and search for meaning — cultivate an attitude that will enable us to endure the most difficult of life’s situations.
According to Frankl, the meaning of life is different for each individual. For some, it may be found in close relationships; for others, it may be work or a hobby, while others may find meaning in small, daily activities and interactions.
Throughout his work, Frankl’s tone is always very human and non-judgmental, which is best observed in his treatment of those who took their lives – in other words, he is always simultaneously providing us with insights on how finding one’s own meaning in the direst of situations can save lives, while recognizing complex contexts and mental health issues that may contribute to one’s suicide.
We are all equal in our humanity. We may suffer for different reasons, but suffering is something that is experienced by all: rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural, “ordinary folk” and famous people. Celebrities, however, often reflect larger societal struggles. Recent losses of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade are reminders that even those fortunate enough to enjoy successful and creative lives are not immune to mental health problems nor are they immune to the multitude of other factors that constitute our often stressful and complex daily lives.
As evident by the outpouring of emotion by those who knew them, it appears that both Bourdain and Spade were artistic, driven, giving and loving individuals who strived to create and bring goodness into the world. It is certain that the world will miss their presence.
While I didn’t follow Spade’s work, I still remember watching Bourdain’s early food TV shows and his unique ability to merge the food with smart and sophisticated commentary on culture and society. I remember watching Bourdain with my late father who was just thrilled that someone came up with such a smart idea of telling us about foods from all over the world, while also reminding us that food is more than just our basic need, but also a way of connecting, socializing, better understanding each other.
I loved watching Bourdain’s shows because of his humanity and his ability to connect and relate to people from all walks of life, from every culture. Bourdain had that rare talent to make you feel like you knew him — you may have watched him on a TV set, but he made you feel like you were right there with him enjoying whatever dish he was eating. He was always genuinely interested in what people had to say — a quality that I, as a psychologist, especially appreciated.
We need to keep talking about Bourdain, Spade, and many others who left us too soon. We need to keep talking about it so that we better understand this issue and know the best ways to help.
We frequently hear reports of an increase in suicide rates in the U.S. Over the past several years, we’ve also been introduced to the growing problem of suicide among helping professions, as physicians, medical students, and other caring individuals in helping professions are taking their lives at alarming rates.
What we know from some early qualitative studies (e.g., Rosen, 1975) of those who survived serious suicide attempts, such as jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, is that all of the survivors reported some form of “spiritual rebirth” experience, “a sense of oneness or unity with other human beings and the entire universe” (Rosen, 1975, p.293), and none of the seven survivors attempted suicide again.
These studies certainly provide some important insights. For instance, one survivor “realized that halfway down he was going to hit a concrete piling and he remained conscious to solve this problem,” and survived by maneuvering “his body so that he only grazed the concrete piling” (Rosen, 1975, p. 291). In other words, when given a few seconds to reflect, the person wanted to live.
While this is a very complex problem, with a lot of individual variabilities, findings like those have implications for prevention efforts. For example, these findings highlight how important it is to remove access to firearms for those at risk, as firearms are the most common method of death by suicide — a method that does not leave any time to reflect or ask for help.
As a society, we need to be better at talking about mental health in general and about suicide in particular. While we made strides to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, it is important to stay active, continue this discussion and advocate for public health policies that will save lives.
Dr. Frankl, as I mentioned earlier, argued that the meaning of life is a key motivator to our survival. While it differs for each individual, finding meaning is important to each individual. One may argue that the current era of information overload, with many of us spending long hours alone and isolated on our iPhone, laptop and iPad islands, faced with multiple pressures to be efficient and productive, makes it easy for us to disconnect from each other and walk around silently with accumulated stressors too often even unaware of it. In such circumstances, holding on to one’s own meaning or reclaiming it can be challenging to say the least.
Today we lost Anthony Bourdain. For too long, too many have lost their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and friends too early. It is time for all of us to help create a society that will promote more time to cultivate close relationships, that will allow us to reach out to each other, and that will provide us with opportunities to get help and support when needed.
I hope we all can play a part in building a culture that will empower every individual to find her or his meaning in life and offer help during those dark moments in which we all may find ourselves at some point. Together, as a community of connected family members, friends, colleagues and neighbors we can make our society kinder and stronger.
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
Rosen, D. H. (1975). Suicide Survivors: A Follow-up Study of Persons Who Survived Jumping from the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. Western Journal of Medicine, 122(4), 289–294.