Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna in the late ’30’s when he and his family were incarcerated in a Jewish concentration camp. Most of his family perished but he survived to write a book about his experiences and learnings from the camp. The book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, has sold over 12 million copies and is regarded as one of the most influential books in America. I can tell you that it is the most influential book in my life.
There are several takeaways from the book that can inform our everyday lives. Let’s look at just one.
Frankl observed that those prisoners who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive. This responsibility gave meaning or purpose to their lives. Frankl concludes that the primary human drive is not pleasure or power but rather the pursuit of meaning. This meaning or purpose is dependent on the tension between what one has already achieved and what still needs to be accomplished, or alternatively, the gap between what one is and what one should become. It is this meaning that enables us to feel a contribution to something bigger than ourselves. It helps us to get outside of ourselves and is basic to good mental health. It provides substance and zest to what we do. We thrive on this striving for a worthwhile goal. It makes our hearts beat faster.
Frankl says that this does not imply some sort of general meaning of life but rather each individual is free to choose that meaning or purpose at any particular point in time that is appropriate to them. This freedom implies responsibility, the responsibility to answer for our own lives. Frankl once said that if we are going to have a Statue of Liberty on the east coast then we should have a corresponding Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.
It is only natural that most of us find meaning in our jobs and in our family raising responsibilities. As we move into the latter stages of our lives and retire from our jobs and complete the raising of our families we lose these sources of meaning. But this drive to find purpose in our lives doesn’t go away just because we are in retirement. The beauty of searching for meaning in retirement is that we have many more degrees of freedom from which to choose since we don’t have to earn a living. In retirement, our search for meaning can become coincident with the exercise of passions that had to be set aside when we were working and raising families. Maybe it is tending a beautiful garden or building wooden boats or volunteer work.
The richness of our retirement is, in many ways, proportional to our ability to acknowledge, define and commit to this tension between what is and what could be.
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