The Writer’s Search for Meaning

I’m bored with depressed people, probably because I’ve known so many of them: People who discount every blessing that has come to them, and amplify every hardship; people who view any change as a threat and any opportunity as a burden; people for whom life just isn’t good enough. In light of something I’ve just read, Victor Frankl’s MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, this sort of existential angst, so common, so thoroughly discussed, seems almost wicked.

Frankl’s masterpiece is really no more than an essay, surprisingly easy to read, describing his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II. I bought the book some time ago, but was afraid to read it because I thought it would be… well, depressing. What a surprise it was to find that, instead of cataloging the horrors that befell him (which would certainly have been justifiable) and ending with a brief cautionary note about the evils of mankind, Frankl chose to focus on the almost incredible tenacity and resilience of the human spirit amid the nightmarish circumstances of a Nazi concentration camp.

Between the lines, it becomes clear that Frankl’s own spirit was extraordinary, not because he was more pious or enlightened than the inmates who succumbed to hopelessness and despair, but because he was willing to accept the horrible turn of fate that had come to him as a learning experience. A psychiatrist, Frankl casts his trained eye on the other members of the weird environment where he has been taken against his will — the SS guards, the “trustee” prisoners (many of whom were more sadistic to the inmates than the Nazi soldiers), the shocked new arrivals, the suicides, the apathetic souls who had lost any desire to live, the embittered survivors who, in their desperate efforts to survive, had sacrificed their own humanity — and instinctively thinks, “How can I use these observations in the service of my life’s work?”

My point here is that writers — at least writers who take their work seriously — must use their experiences the way Frankl used his, to deepen their understanding of themselves and the world. You are not what you eat: You are whatever you have made of the things that have happened to you.If the only impression life has left you with is a vague and bitter taste of failure, then you have not looked deeply enough into your suffering.You do not need to be happy to find meaning in your life. But that meaning is present nonetheless, and your task as a writer is to uncover and clarify that meaning for others.┬áThis is not some altruistic task designed to make you feel better about yourself. It is, rather, the ultimate purpose of the writer. We (writers) exist in order to find meaning in life. There is no other reason for us to do what we do.

So I admonish you: Do not give in to the easy nothingness of depression. You were meant to walk beyond it, to find the clean air in that place beyond, and to show those who follow you how to fly.