I’ve been reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s a book about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. During this time, he watched many lose hope, not knowing when or if the suffering they were enduring would ever end. And once hope was lost, it was often only a matter of days before death came knocking at their door.
In order to avoid this death sentence of hopelessness, the prisoners needed something to live for. Some sense of meaning in their lives. Some sort of purpose to give them the will and strength to continue on. One man had a son that had escaped the war and was waiting for him in another country. Another had made scientific discoveries that he felt were of great value and importance, and his sense of purpose was to finish the book he was writing to share this knowledge with the world. It was meaning such as this that kept many alive.
Others did not feel a sense of purpose waiting for them outside of camp. Some felt they had nothing of much importance to return home to, or they feared that those they loved would not return at all. So what did they have to live for? What gave their life meaning?
Frankl introduces a Dostoevski quote in the book: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Frankl goes on to say, “These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in [concentration] camp, whose suffering and death bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
As I reflected on this, I thought of my father. He discovered he had cancer at the age of 49 and left this world the following year. Despite his impending early exit, in his last few months, I had never seen him more loving and at ease.
There was a great deal of physical discomfort, but he did not let this stop him from enjoying what little life he had left. He became more relaxed. More present. More loving. More peaceful. He began to feel deep gratitude for the fleeting moments he had with people. He knew there were likely few remaining, and he cherished each one as if it were his last. Through this experience, he found spiritual purpose, and in doing so he modeled something incredibly beautiful and powerful for those of us that had the privilege to bear witness to his process. He died a man very worthy of his sufferings.
What was the spiritual meaning that he discovered? What was it that created this sense of purpose and feeling of inner peace? What was it that allowed him to leave this world with such love and grace? Is this something that can be discovered outside the context of great suffering and impending death?
I’ve been thinking a lot about my life purpose as I read this book and reflect on my father’s final months, and during meditation yesterday, a question arose:
What if I am my life purpose?
What could this mean? One of my first thoughts was that this idea sounded like a recipe for selfishness. As I sat with this question, it began to feel more and more powerful and important, and not to be dismissed at face value. I began to connect the dots to what Frankl and Dostoevski were saying.
One potential way of finding purpose for the Holocaust prisoners was to focus on others in the camp, rather than themselves, and practice small kindnesses. Frankl talks about this only briefly, perhaps because these acts of kindness were few and far between, likely due to the constant assault on their spirits that occurred through feeling dehumanized, living in horrible conditions, and having no idea what the future would hold. There were so many unknowns, and their faith had been broken so many times that it became much too painful to hope, to dream, to long for anything changing or improving. From this space, there was little left to give.
With acts of kindness unable to sustain them, the only thing left to do was to make themselves their life purpose. And this was, perhaps ironically, the most selfless thing they could do, because in putting on their own oxygen masks first, they might have a chance to be available in some way to others. To be a source of strength for those that had fallen to despair. To model a way of being that gave others hope, as Frankl was able to do on occasion for some of his fellow prisoners.
In order to survive and help others survive in such conditions, one must cultivate something internally that gives them a sense of purpose. To find within themselves that which can never be taken away. To discover a way to remain kind and not lose touch with compassion. To suffer with grace, as my father and many in the Holocaust did, and be worthy of their sufferings. For those that didn’t feel a sense of purpose outside of the camps, they were forced to use the situation they were in for their own spiritual evolution, or die.
Many Holocaust survivors reported living much more meaningful lives after the war. They no longer let small quarrels and pettiness create large rifts between themselves and others. They became much kinder, more compassionate, and more peaceful, and they began living with a greater sense of gratitude and reverence. Those that experienced these changes had allowed their experiences of suffering to soften them and to connect them with something deep within themselves that they had previously lost touch with. Something sacred and divine.
What is spiritual awakening if not the discovery that we are divine beings, and that we are all in this together? The remembering that we are unique and valuable pieces of something much greater than that which we are able to observe with our physical senses. The understanding that the world is a mirror creating opportunity after opportunity to use our suffering to help us heal and grow and develop more empathy and compassion for ourselves and others, so that we may experience ourselves as grander and grander versions of undefended love. And the realization that we, therefore, are our own life purpose, because it is in turning inward and developing internal resources, new perspectives, and deeper understandings that we become and model the love we wish to experience in the world.
Most of us think of life purpose in terms of what we produce and provide for others. This focuses us externally on what we are creating outside of us. What we are doing, rather than who we are being.
I do this with my writing. I am focusing externally in this moment. I am thinking of this piece of writing as being a part of my purpose. But the writing itself is not what’s important. It’s the process. It’s who I am becoming as I write this. It’s who this writing is creating me to be, and what it is allowing me to model.
I am having many insights as I write this piece. I am healing, I am changing, I am learning, I am growing, and I am connecting with something sacred within me that is beyond my human perspective of myself. It is this process that is being transmitted when I click post on Facebook, when I create this to be a blog on my website, when I read this aloud to others. People are not reading a piece of writing. They are reading me. They are observing the process that I am.
We are the art. We are the process and the product. We are our own life purpose. We are what we are here to create.
We are all modeling a way of being simply by existing as we are. Who we are in the world is how we impact the world. We do not create change by focusing on producing something outside of ourselves, but, as Ghandi said, by being the change we wish to see in the world.
There were many who kept others alive during the Holocaust simply by being who they were. They helped others to find an inner source of power and compassion that they had forgotten or did not know existed within them until they saw it reflected to them by another through acts of courage and kindness. Those who allowed their suffering to soften them and put them in touch with their divine nature, and exposed this to others through modeling a compassionate way of being, were the unsung heroes of the war. Those that model compassion are the unsung heroes of life. And you are one of these heroes, just be being you.
These heroes existed on both sides in the camps. Frankl wrote of Nazi soldiers that secretly practiced acts of kindness toward the prisoners, often at great personal risk, and the huge impact this had on him each time he witnessed such acts. This was enough to temporarily restore one’s faith in humanity.
Frankl invites us to ask ourselves a powerful question:
What would the world be lacking if I did not exist?
Here’s my answer:
It would be lacking me. Not what I do. Not what I provide. Not what I produce. Just me.
I am the ever-evolving process through which everything is produced. I am the source, and no single act defines me. This piece of writing is not my art project. I am the art. I am constantly changing and recreating myself anew. And that which is a process can never be defined.
I’m already a different person the moment after that which I produce is created. It is merely a momentary step on the dance floor, and I have already moved on. I am not that dance step. I am not even the dancer. I am the eternal dance.
Perhaps my purpose is to remind others that they are the eternal dance as well, by being the dance myself. Why? Because it’s more fun to become the dance than to identify ourselves as the dancers, lose our footing, and endlessly step on each other’s toes. It’s more fun to let go and flow.
And from this place of ease and joy, our unique brilliance is naturally unleashed, and we effortlessly shine and transform the world around us.
A version of this post was originally posted on TroyCohen.wordpress.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
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