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Guiding Yourself and Others to Meaning

The lighthouse as a symbol of strength, hope, and awareness.

Key points

  • The image of a lighthouse can be used as a symbol and metaphor for advancing the human quest for meaning.
  • Lighthouses symbolize strength, safety, individuality, mystery, and existentialism.
  • Strength and resilience are qualities that enable human beings to overcome life's most formidable challenges and obstacles.
  • Everyone, at one time or another, needs a beacon of light to guide them through the "fog" and "darkness" of life.
Image Taken by Alex Pattakos Ph.D.
Point Prim Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse on Prince Edward Island and the only round brick lighthouse in Canada.
Source: Image Taken by Alex Pattakos Ph.D.

I recently moved to an island called Prince Edward Island (PEI), which is known for three important things: it is the smallest province (similar to a state) in Canada; it is recognized for its historic role in the formation or birthplace of the Confederation of Canada; and it has numerous, awe-inspiring lighthouses that dot the coastline. On a recent tour of several of these amazing lighthouses on the island, I was inspired by the thought of how the image of a lighthouse could be used as both a symbol and a metaphor in relation to our essential human quest for meaning.

It is no wonder that visitors travel from all over the world to tour these mostly white and red structures that make for breathtaking photo backdrops and panoramic views of the land and sea surrounding Prince Edward Island. Although some have been decommissioned or are now privately owned, many, including lighthouses designated as national historic sites, are still actively used today as aids to marine (and aerial) navigation.

Besides the obvious purpose of providing navigational lights to guide ships in the night keeping them safe and sound, lighthouses have long been used—conceptually, symbolically, and metaphorically—in other meaningful ways. In this regard, they have been used frequently both in literature and in and cinema to symbolize strength, safety, individuality, existentialism, mystery, and even death. As a special case in point, Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and numerous other works set on Prince Edward Island, was very much enchanted by lighthouses and when spirit called out to her, she depicted them in her inspirational and meaning-focused stories.

The world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, the author of the classic bestseller Man's Search for Meaning, famously espoused that meaning is the primary intrinsic motivation of human beings. How can we use the symbol of the lighthouse as our guide in understanding our own search for meaning?

A symbol of strength and resilience
Because lighthouses are constructed to withstand powerful storms and turbulent ocean waters, it is no wonder why they are frequently depicted as symbols of strength and resilience. When associated with human beings, these two qualities are key enablers when seeking to overcome life’s most formidable challenges and obstacles.

Practically speaking, ask yourself:

  • How do you see yourself as a lighthouse, as a symbol of strength and resilience?
  • Are you constructed like a lighthouse to withstand the “storms of life?”
  • Are you a symbol of strength and resilience for others?
  • If not, why not, and importantly, what can you do to strengthen these qualities?

A symbol of hope and security
Lighthouses have traditionally been viewed as symbols of hope and security. As beacons of light, they provide guidance for safe passage to sailors and protect not only their lives but the land nearby. By marking dangerous coastlines and identifying hazardous conditions in a ship’s path, lighthouses are instrumental in gaining safe entry to harbors.

Ask yourself:

  • What guides you and gives you a beacon of hope along your path to meaning?
  • What or who serves as a “lighthouse” in your life that can help mark the dangerous coastline and hazardous conditions in your path?

A symbol of awareness and being
A key function of lighthouses is to increase the sailors’ level of awareness about themselves and their surroundings to ensure that they proceed safely through potentially unknown and rough waters.

Ask yourself:

  • How are you shifting your consciousness so that you can confront your existential issues and, as a result, discover the meaning of life’s moments?1
  • Amidst the darkness and stormy seas of life, are you committed to keeping your eyes on the light even if it may appear to be far into the distance?

To be sure, all of us experience, be it in our personal or work lives, situations in which we find ourselves in scary, rough, and or unknown territory. It is especially during these moments when the need for a beacon of light to guide us through the “fog” and “darkness” of life arises. It is this lighthouse effect that helps us see ourselves and our situation more clearly, as well as guides us along the path to meaning so that we may achieve our full potential as human beings.

I invite you to visit and experience the special lighthouses of Prince Edward Island in the near future. In the meantime, I urge you to reflect upon the metaphor and symbolism of the lighthouse and how they can help you discover deeper meaning in your life.


1. See: Pattakos, A., and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Chapter 5. See also: Pattakos, A., and Dundon, E. (2015). The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work. Dallas: BenBella Books.

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