Viktor Frankl lived, as we do now, through a historical and traumatizing era. Since the pandemic started, I have often thought of his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Years ago, it gifted me with a perspective which never left me, and which I find especially relevant to the struggles of the present and to my work in the legal industry.
Man’s Search for Meaning, part Holocaust memoir and part psychological tract, is based on the theory that having a sense of meaning in life is necessary for mental health and even survival. Frankl, who was founder of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, named his theory logotherapy. As an outsider to the field of mental health care, I cannot comment on the validity of his theory. Instead, I read from the perspective of my own philosophy and life experience.
Meaning, according to Frankl, is not fixed and universal, but specific to the transient state of one’s life right now: “[W]e can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Because Frankl was a survivor of genocide, he had a unique authority to comment on the possibilities we might find in our own suffering. When suffering is inevitable, Frankl pointed out, we have the opportunity to refine our humanity, to “turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
Post-apocalyptic fiction such as TV series The Walking Dead is premised on the notion that in times of crisis, people will turn against each other in a brutal, amoral, and supposedly Darwinian struggle to survive. The reality is that in disaster, communities often pull together. This truth may not be terribly visible due to the way the attention-based economy drives news media sensationalism, but if you look for it, you will find evidence that many people are struggling to serve their communities. This spring and summer have brought out in many a desire to volunteer, join a spiritual community, give to charity, register voters, become politically active, or invest more of ourselves in the socially beneficial potential of the work that we do. If you are hungry to find more ways to help others, you are not alone.
Frankl’s call for us to seek the potential for meaning in our lives is above all a call to be aware of the tests that life places before us and to face them responsibly, as moral and caring beings, even under the worst circumstances.
Perhaps that sounds exhausting. Months of ongoing crisis can cause anyone to feel overwhelmed. If so, remember that caring for yourself or allowing yourself to be cared for are also responsible actions. Frankl discouraged unnecessary suffering: “I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, […] the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause[.]”
After taking the time to replenish yourself, it may be time for a meaningfulness audit. Here are some questions I ask myself periodically: How can I find more meaning in my paid work, volunteer work, and other activities? Do I reserve time in my calendar to seek meaningful experiences through art or nature? Do I give enough attention to my professional relationships, friendships, and family? What change of perspective or focus is required?
I find inspiration in the value that is served by legal work, work aimed at preventing or alleviating the suffering of others. This value can get lost among the mundane details of one’s day-to-day duties. However, our work offers us the opportunity to perform services for our clients and our coworkers. It is a comfort to reread Frankl and affirm that we are called on not only to perform well in the technical sense but also to cultivate our best selves in our work.
“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued, it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause[.]”
Book review previously published in the September 2020 issue of the Los Angeles Paralegal Reporter, vol 48, issue 9, titled, “Paralegal Work and the Search for Meaning.”
Re-published on leesalazar.com in 2021 and backdated accordingly.