“Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.”
By Maria Popova
Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love? We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.
Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997), having lost his mother, his father, and his brother to our civilization’s most colossal moral failure yet, having barely survived himself, Frankl takes up the question of what makes life not only survivable but worthy of living in what now lives as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library) — a slim, powerful set of lectures he delivered a mere eleven months after the Holocaust, just as he was completing the manuscript of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning.
In a sublime sidewise testament to the singular power of music, which some of humanity’s vastest minds have so memorably extolled, Frankl writes:
It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Should I perhaps try to explain for you with some hackneyed phrase how and why experiencing beauty can make life meaningful? I prefer to confine myself to the following thought experiment: imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favorite symphony, and your favorite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine; and now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”
More than a century after Mary Shelley celebrated nature as a lifeline to sanity in considering what makes life worth living in a world savaged by a deadly pandemic, and decades before Tennessee Williams reflected as he approached his own death that “we live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love… love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend,” Frankl adds:
Those who experience, not the arts, but nature, may have a similar response, and also those who experience another human being. Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.
In how we suffer and how we love, Frankl concludes, is the measure of who and what we are:
How human beings deal with the limitation of their possibilities regarding how it affects their actions and their ability to love, how they behave under these restrictions — the way in which they accept their suffering under such restrictions — in all of this they still remain capable of fulfilling human values.
So, how we deal with difficulties truly shows who we are.
“Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is… each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.”
By Maria Popova
“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his classic 119-page essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else… is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”
Sometimes, life asks this question not as a thought experiment but as a gauntlet hurled with the raw brutality of living.
That selfsame year, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) was taken to Auschwitz along with more than a million human beings robbed of the basic right to answer this question for themselves, instead deemed unworthy of living. Some survived by reading. Some through humor. Some by pure chance. Most did not. Frankl lost his mother, his father, and his brother to the mass murder in the concentration camps. His own life was spared by the tightly braided lifeline of chance, choice, and character.
A mere eleven months after surviving the unsurvivable, Frankl took up the elemental question at the heart of Camus’s philosophical parable in a set of lectures, which he himself edited into a slim, potent book published in Germany in 1946, just as he was completing Man’s Search for Meaning.
As our collective memory always tends toward amnesia and erasure — especially of periods scarred by civilizational shame — these existential infusions of sanity and lucid buoyancy fell out of print and were soon forgotten. Eventually rediscovered — as is also the tendency of our collective memory when the present fails us and we must lean for succor on the life-tested wisdom of the past — they are now published in English for the first time as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).
Frankl begins by considering the question of whether life is worth living through the central fact of human dignity. Noting how gravely the Holocaust disillusioned humanity with itself, he cautions against the defeatist “end-of-the-world” mindset with which many responded to this disillusionment, but cautions equally against the “blithe optimism” of previous, more naïve eras that had not yet faced this gruesome civilizational mirror reflecting what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Both dispositions, he argues, stem from nihilism. In consonance with his colleague and contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence that we can only transcend the shared laziness of optimism and pessimism through rational faith in the human spirit, Frankl writes:
We cannot move toward any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this.
Today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something “progresses.” In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age.
Insisting that it takes a measure of moral strength not to succumb to nihilism, be it that of the pessimist or of the optimist, he exclaims:
Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!
How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be, so as not to be shattered by such skepticism. How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence, if this belief is able to take up and bear this skepticism and pessimism?
Through this nihilism, through the pessimism and skepticism, through the soberness of a “new objectivity” that is no longer that “new” but has grown old, we must strive toward a new humanity.
Sophie Scholl, upon whom chance did not smile as favorably as it did upon Frankl, affirmed this notion with her insistence that living with integrity and belief in human goodness is the wellspring of courage as she courageously faced her own untimely death in the hands of the Nazis. But while the Holocaust indisputably disenchanted humanity, Frankl argues, it also indisputably demonstrated “that what is human is still valid… that it is all a question of the individual human being.” Looking back on the brutality of the camps, he reflects:
What remained was the individual person, the human being — and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down — the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one — the anonymous one, a nameless thing (!), that “he” had now become, just a prisoner number; or else he melted right down to his essential self.
In a sentiment that bellows from the hallways of history into the great vaulted temple of timeless truth, he adds:
Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.
Frankl then turns to the question of finding a sense of meaning when the world gives us ample reasons to view life as meaningless — the question of “continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness.” Writing in the post-war pre-dawn of the golden age of consumerism, which has built a global economy by continually robbing us of the sense of meaning and selling it back to us at the price of the product, Frankl first dismantles the notion that meaning is to be found in the pursuit and acquisition of various pleasures:
Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal. The guard comes into his cell and asks him what he wants to eat, offers him all kinds of delicacies; but the man rejects all his suggestions. He thinks to himself that it is quite irrelevant whether he stuffs good food into the stomach of his organism or not, as in a few hours it will be a corpse. And even the feelings of pleasure that could still be felt in the organism’s cerebral ganglia seem pointless in view of the fact that in two hours they will be destroyed forever. But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else — preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.
I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I worked — and behold,
duty was joy.
In consonance with Camus’s view of happiness as a moral obligation — an outcome to be attained not through direct pursuit but as a byproduct of living with authenticity and integrity — Frankl reflects on Tagore’s poetic point:
So, life is somehow duty, a single, huge obligation. And there is certainly joy in life too, but it cannot be pursued, cannot be “willed into being” as joy; rather, it must arise spontaneously, and in fact, it does arise spontaneously, just as an outcome may arise: Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome; the outcome of the fulfillment of that which in Tagore’s poem is called duty… All human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.
At this point it would be helpful [to perform] a conceptual turn through 180 degrees, after which the question can no longer be “What can I expect from life?” but can now only be “What does life expect of me?” What task in life is waiting for me?
Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us… We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us anymore, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us.
Frankl adds a caveat of tremendous importance — triply so in our present culture of self-appointed gurus, self-help demagogues, and endless podcast feeds of interviews with accomplished individuals attempting to distill a universal recipe for self-actualization:
The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realize the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.
We can, therefore, see how the question as to the meaning of life is posed too simply, unless it is posed with complete specificity, in the concreteness of the here and now. To ask about “the meaning of life” in this way seems just as naive to us as the question of a reporter interviewing a world chess champion and asking, “And now, Master, please tell me: which chess move do you think is the best?” Is there a move, a particular move, that could be good, or even the best, beyond a very specific, concrete game situation, a specific configuration of the pieces?
One way or another, there can only be one alternative at a time to give meaning to life, meaning to the moment — so at any time we only need to make one decision about how we must answer, but, each time, a very specific question is being asked of us by life. From all this follows that life always offers us a possibility for the fulfillment of meaning, therefore there is always the option that it has a meaning. One could also say that our human existence can be made meaningful “to the very last breath”; as long as we have breath, as long as we are still conscious, we are each responsible for answering life’s questions.
The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfill it, to use our time and occupy it. Death gives us a compulsion to do so. Therefore, death forms the background against which our act of being becomes a responsibility.
Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it — or leave unfulfilled — that gives our existence significance. But it is not only the uniqueness of an individual life as a whole that gives it importance, it is also the uniqueness of every day, every hour, every moment that represents something that loads our existence with the weight of a terrible and yet so beautiful responsibility! Any hour whose demands we do not fulfill, or fulfill halfheartedly, this hour is forfeited, forfeited “for all eternity.” Conversely, what we achieve by seizing the moment is, once and for all, rescued into reality, into a reality in which it is only apparently “canceled out” by becoming the past. In truth, it has actually been preserved, in the sense of being kept safe. Having been is in this sense perhaps even the safest form of being. The “being,” the reality that we have rescued into the past in this way, can no longer be harmed by transitoriness.
“Humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
By Maria Popova
“When one is considering the universe,” Ella Frances Sanders observed in her lovely illustrated celebration of wonder, “it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.” Somehow, on our tiny beautiful planet adrift in a vast unfeeling universe, we have managed to create myriad causes for weeping. “Our life has become so mechanized and electronified,” the Hungarian journalist and László Feleki wrote with astounding prescience half a century ago, “that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?” Mechanization is but one way to dehumanize life, but there are others, grimmer, far worthier of weeping and more savaging of sanity.
Reflecting on the inner acts of rebellion by which prisoners maintained their dignity, sanity, and zest for life in the concentration camp — making art in secret, reading smuggled books — Frankl writes:
Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
He recounts how he awakened a friend to the life-saving value of humor — an acquired skill, like any art — through what is essentially a disciplined implementation of creative prompts:
I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. He was a surgeon and had been an assistant on the staff of a large hospital. So I once tried to get him to smile by describing to him how he would be unable to lose the habits of camp life when he returned to his former work. On the building site (especially when the supervisor made his tour of inspection) the foreman encouraged us to work faster by shouting: “Action! Action!” I told my friend, “One day you will be back in the operating room, performing a big abdominal operation. Suddenly an orderly will rush in announcing the arrival of the senior surgeon by shouting, ‘Action! Action!’”
Telescoping from the particular to the universal, Frankl considers how his experience in the concentration camp illuminates a broader consolation for the human struggle:
The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.
To find humor in the grimmest of circumstances is not only a survival tool but a supreme act of creativity and an assertion of the most unassailable personal liberty. Frankl writes:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful. An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces.
A worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making from America’s original prophet of self-improvement.
By Maria Popova
When the 29-year-old Charles Darwin made his endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage, he was applying a now common decision-making technique pioneered half a century earlier by another revolutionary mind on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s polymathic Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790).
Not since the Stoics had there been so prolific a prophet of self-improvement as Franklin. From the list of thirteen virtues he penned when he was only twenty to his staggering daily routine to his clever trick for disarming haters, he continually devised and applied various psychological frameworks to just about every problem of existence. By middle age, Franklin’s reputation as a formidable sage of practical wisdom rendered him on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice, many of which he generously and thoughtfully obliged.
In the late summer of 1772, Franklin received one such plea from a friend — the English scientist, theologian, and liberal political theorist Joseph Priestley, at the time working as minister of the famed Unitarian church Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. On Franklin’s recommendation, the Earl of Shelburne had offered the 39-year-old Priestley a lucrative position as his general assistant, tasked with managing his library and educating his children. Priestley was torn — the appointment would grant him financial stability for the first time in his life and would leave ample time for his scientific investigations, but it would require that he relinquish his ministry and move his family to the Earl’s estate near Bath. Unsure how to proceed, he turned to Franklin for help in navigating the high-stakes conundrum.
In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.
When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.
To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.
And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.
Priestley accepted the position, which proved to be a turning point in the history of science. Less than three years later, in the laboratory the Earl of Shelburne built for him, he went on to conduct the famous experiment in which he focused the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide through a burning glass and discovered oxygen, O2 — a new kind of air Priestley marveled was “five or six times better than common air for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and, I believe, every other use of common atmospherical air.”