We usually know what to expect from day to day. For example, we might have a meeting with a vendor, a soccer game to attend, or a doctor’s appointment. We also have expectations for the longer term, such as getting married, having children, and having a successful career. Once we have met our basic needs, including food, clothing, and shelter, our personal expectations for the future help motivate us to move forward.
But what if we’ve been looking at this backward? Maybe what we expect from life is not nearly as important as what life expects from us.
What Life Expects from Us Makes all the Difference
This shift in perspective lies at the core of the philosophy of Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who specialized in treating people with suicidal tendencies. What life expects from us is a rather cryptic phrase, but it’s central to logotherapy, a school of therapy that Frankl introduced in the 1930s. Frankl ultimately wrote one of the most influential works of the 20th century, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about logotherapy treatment through the lens of his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
The premise of this treatment is that human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose beyond day-to-day struggles and situations. Frankl asserted that even in the most miserable of circumstances, life has meaning, and our primary motivation for living is our will to find meaning in our lives. Further, we all have freedom in how we experience life, even in the face of a situation when there is unchangeable suffering.
Is it Always Possible to Find Meaning in Life?
Finding meaning in life can be elusive even in the best of circumstances. So consider, then, trying to find reasons to survive the brutal, tenuous existence at a concentration camp. There, everything people had ever known was taken from them—material goods, family, everything they had ever valued—with the omnipresent threat of death.
As he endured three years at Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Frankl’s theory that finding a purpose in life increases the ability to survive would be tested. There, he called upon his resources as a psychiatrist to help others build the resilience needed to live each day. Based on his belief in logotherapy, Frankl tried to increase his friends’ chances of survival by inspiring them to find their life’s purpose, a calling larger than themselves—even while experiencing hell on earth.
The Connection between Purpose and Survival
What, then, did Frankl observe as he and his fellow inmates struggled to live and survive? In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl shares that his experiences in the camps reinforced his position that those who believed they had a mission to accomplish in the future were more likely to survive than those who didn’t. He provides one example of a woman who was determined to survive to see her children who lived in another country, and another of a travel author intent on writing the next book in his series. Even as all of the prisoners struggled with the very elements of survival, Frankl asserted that “the experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
Frankl Creates His Own Unique Purpose
Like other survivors, Frank had his own mission: to rewrite a manuscript that had been confiscated upon arrival at Auschwitz. Following the war, in 1946, Frankl resumed his work as a neurologist and psychiatrist. In just nine days, he wrote the manuscript that became “Man’s Search for Meaning,” outlining his experiences in the concentration camps and the basic tenets of logotherapy.
Frankl believed that creating this foundational work was his unique motivating task, one that only he could accomplish given his unique gifts, strengths, and experiences.
How Does Finding Meaning Affect Our Lives Today?
We in North America live in fortunate times. In particular, we are free from the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps. However, many of us still feel trapped by the need to obtain material goods, status, and other measures of “success” and fleeting feel-good satisfaction.
Frankl would argue that many psychological problems today would be resolved if we could help patients find a greater sense of purpose, encouraging them to focus on actualizing values rather than on mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.
Passover Provides an Opportunity to Search for a Life of Meaning
As we approach the Passover season, we can find parallels to Frankl’s philosophy. He believed that suffering is part of life, and every human being experiences pain and challenges. The question is, how do we find the resilience to move forward? What meaning can we find to help propel us, step by step? Fortunately, Passover can give us deeper insights to help us answer these questions.
Every year, Jewish families relate the story of Passover and the Exodus from ancient Egypt, a pivotal point in our people’s history. The Passover festival has been celebrated for the past 3,300 years. Since that time, our Rabbis and Sages have provided their insights on the lessons we can learn from this story of slavery, liberation, and redemption
As we read the Haggadah at our Seder tables this year, what can we learn that will help us add greater meaning to our lives today?
Finding a Purpose to Overcome Challenges
How the ancient Israelites would behave, understand their own story, and look toward the future would define who they would become as a people. They must have been disheartened and frightened at times, leaving everything they knew behind, not knowing where they were going.
At first, many people must have felt hopeless, without purpose, with just the endless desert before them. But over 40 years of wandering, they developed a focal mission, uniquely their own: to become a unified people that served G-d. This attitude shift enabled them to become a free people that reaches the Promised Land.
Understanding that We Have the Freedom of Thought
One of the most important tasks we undertake during Passover is to impart the story to the next generation. And we don’t just read the story; the rituals help us reenact the sorrows of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. The Festival joins us together as family and friends, reinforcing our shared history and identity.
But this experience of reliving the Exodus goes even deeper than generation-to-generation. One of our sages understands that “in every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” In other words, the Haggadah is not just a history textbook. Even though we have not personally experienced slavery, we can benefit from our ancestral experience of building a sense of purpose. We have the freedom to change our attitudes and find meaning that will drive us through the twists and turns of our own unfinished lives.
Continually Renewing a Sense of Meaning and Purpose
Another Sage puts a different spin on our Passover obligations, saying that we must experience the “leaving of Egypt” each and every day, not only in each generation. What does this mean to us, practically? Consider that even on our best days, we may face conflicts and challenges based on our internal natures and external situations. If we consider each of these a “personal Exodus,” we can face each one with a renewed sense of purpose, staying true to our values and keeping our eye on the tasks we want to achieve.
Finding the Freedom to Seize New Opportunities as They Arise
Although we are not slaves or living in concentration camps, that’s not to trivialize the difficulties in our lives. We don’t live in the easiest of times as we try readjusting to the new hand we have been dealt during the COVID pandemic. Our personal lives may have been touched by family loss, job stress, our children’s emotional needs, logistical issues, uncertainty, and other unanticipated stressors.
We have faced equally difficult challenges in our business lives. If you own your own business, you’re dealing with issues related to supply chain, hiring and retention, changing consumer demand, industry shifts, and more. Hospital workers, teachers, retail workers, and people in other customer-facing occupations have faced uncommon levels of stress. Those working from home may also have experienced loneliness and a sense of being disconnected.
As our world changes, let’s remember the importance of finding a sense of meaning, as clearly articulated by Viktor Frankl. As we celebrate the holiday, let’s take the opportunity to explore what life expects from us and use our freedom to seize new opportunities. This Passover season, whether your mission is to create a painting, love someone more fully, or shift your attitude to a difficult situation, your personal Exodus is waiting for you.