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On Nothing Less Than the Meaning of Life

How a Book Has Given Me Reason to Live

This was set up to be my worst holiday season ever, but that was no surprise. This entire year has been that way: one flaming crisis, one unexpected explosion after another. I had to have two operations for cancer on my nose, and I just found out I need to have yet another one shortly before Christmas. Financial ruin is beckoning: the royalties on my beloved bestseller Manic have finally petered out, leaving me with practically nothing to live on and nowhere to turn. And worst of all—worse even than the cancer, if you can believe it—is the unbearable but inescapable fact that the man I've loved for thirty-five years has left me, without even saying goodbye.

So 2014 has not been kind. I'm happy to see it go, and would be willing to celebrate that fact alone, since little else remains to be feted.

But a book has sneaked into my life. A little thing, a sliver of a paperback on cheap stock paper with a spine that cracks if you crease it too hard. I forget exactly what happened to bring it to my notice. I think I read an email which contained a link which led me to an article which mentioned the book. God didn't just drop it in my lap, in other words. But He might as well have. It's changed everything.

The book is entitled Man's Search for Meaning, a big walloping title for such a small volume. No doubt you've heard of it somewhere, maybe in Psych 101. It's one of those seminal works that everyone claims to have read, but most people didn't. You'd remember it if you had.

The author, psychiatrist Victor Frankl, wrote the book in nine days immediately after being liberated from a concentration camp in 1945. In a somewhat scattershot but gripping style, he relates his experiences in that camp and others, including Auschwitz and Dachau. Then in the second half of the book he explains the psychological theory he lived by, which he calls logotherapy. It's a rather strange conglomeration—sheer horror and academia—but it works. He lives up to his title.

I won't tease you any further. There are three ways to find meaning in life, Frankl says. First, you can create something, like art or some other work. Second, you can love and devote yourself to another person. Third—and here's where he captured my heart—you can find meaning in your suffering.

Frankl is no masochist. By all means don't suffer, he says. If you can avoid it, do so. But if you can't, if it's absolutely unavoidable and there's no hope of getting around it, then the way that you choose to respond to your suffering can deeply enrich your life. You can face your tribulations with courage and dignity. You can grow beyond yourself. Or, as a great many of the concentration camp victims did, you can succumb. It's that simple, and that profound.

The last line of the book sums up Frankl's philosophy better than I ever could: ". . . [M]an is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

Why is it that we sometimes learn something exactly when we need to learn it? Is that proof of the existence of God, or just a joyous coincidence? I don't know, and I don't care. The idea that my suffering has some value is an epiphany I cherish, and I can't stop talking about it to anyone who will listen. All my life, I've undergone trials that have made me wonder why me, why this, and why can't I just die? For example, why do I have to have bipolar disorder? Why did my father have to leave this earth when I want and need him so? Why did I have to fall in love with a man who would ultimately shatter my heart?

But since reading Frankl's book, I'm spending less time thinking about the why's and more about the how's: how can I face this with ordeal with grace? How can I move past the lure of suicidality and embrace life, despite all its torment? How can I allow my eyes to see beauty and possibility, instead of closing them in pain?

These aren't questions to be answered in a blog. They are questions to grapple with for the rest of my life. To do that, I need to survive. I need to feel, no matter how much it hurts. Meaning exists, and I intend to find it—and keep finding it—for as long as it takes.