When I ponder the statement, “Life holds potential meaning under any condition, even the most miserable,” the story of an anonymous woman comes to my mind. She made a deep impression on me and taught me about two existential states: having, and being.
She was alone. She had no one left. She lived in a 1.2 × 3 meter “home” and had a bed, a gas bottle, a stove and a small closet—no electric light, no heating. Even the sun did not bother to illuminate and warm her life, because she was not in its way. She lived on benefits of only 30 euros a month, but she lived her life with dignity, without complaining, without extending her hand to beg, satisfied with her condition and not wanting to climb a step higher. She gave me a smile whenever I opened the door to her tiny palace.
Nihilism holds that nothing makes sense—a perspective that naturalists have also adopted, attributing any possible ‘meaning of life’ to the laws of physics and the countless moments of chance that influence our existence. Is it still worth trying to give meaning to life if the laws of physics undermine us?
Charlotte Bühler stated that “all we can do is study the lives of those people who seem to have found answers to the ultimate questions of life, in contrast to those who failed to do so.”
The search for the meaning of life is a fundamental motivating force, wrote Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl lost his parents, his brother, his wife, his property and his health. But while he waited, hour after hour, for his own extermination, he did not for one second give up the belief that life is worth living, and that it makes sense. His readers were to see the proof of his statement in his very own biography.
Frankl—who liked to quote Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how”—believed that human existence is tragically influenced by three types of experience: suffering, guilt, and death.
It was these three, not the laws of physics, that undermined the existence of meaning, but Frankl was convinced that people can overcome these three forces, and say “Yes” to life, despite everything. How?
By transforming suffering into human achievement and human fulfilment.
By allowing guilt to spur us to take hold of the chance to change for the better.
By extracting, from the ephemerality of life, a reason to act responsibly.
“As for the cause of the meaningless, it could be said, albeit in a very simplified way, that people have enough to live on, but not enough to live for.” They lack motivation. Just as you won’t laugh just because someone shouts “Laugh!” at you, but you laugh when someone tells a joke or does something funny, so you can’t find a meaning in life if you don’t have the motivation for it.
Another reason for a lack of meaning in life is an exclusive concern for oneself. If for all your life you focus only on self-service, in the end you will find that everything is meaningless. But, if your main concern is service to your fellow human beings, then your life will appear to be a wonderful gift, where everything has meaning. Love is a fire that shapes the true meaning of life.
Two things have made an impression on me and made me thank God that I got to know the woman I mentioned at the beginning: her contentment with the “nothing” she had, and the fact that she was free of any resentment or complaint for what had happened to her in the past. I felt ashamed, overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness and inner turmoil. I felt poor compared to her. She didn’t have what I had, but that was not fundamental. I didn’t have what she had, which was fundamental.
The apostle Paul, who dedicated the greatest hymn to love, in the end concluded that what will be most precious and will remain for eternity is love—because God is love.
Paul’s biography is also a proof of his statements. After meeting Jesus, he found the motivation required to give full meaning to his life. He echoed Christ’s words which sum up the paradox of human existence: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). With his life, Paul wrote the continuation of these words: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
What Paul says next can only be said by one who has found the true purpose of existence, the true meaning of life. “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:22-24). Between his good and the good of the Philippians, Paul chose the good of the Philippians. Only he who has met God and knows Him can make such a choice. This is the true meaning of life.