The primary motivational force in man is his striving for meaning.”Victor Frankl
I am by nature a night owl, not an early bird. For this reason, most mornings and I have to get acquainted slowly and gradually. I find them much less jarring that way.
But this process always gets easier when the light comes.
I’m not talking about sunlight. I’m talking about a sort of inner light that starts deep within.
The light is barely discernable at first, like stars in a pre-dawn sky. But then it grows, from gentle pinpoints to a glowing circle that warms the distant horizons of my mind. The lengthening light throws the drowsing landscape into sharp relief, piercing here and there the fog of half-sleep and half-resolved dreams.
Finally over the horizon comes light so glitteringly, fiercely bright that it pulls me into the full state of wakefulness.
I lie in bed a few minutes more, mentally basking in this light. Where did it come from? What created it? What thoughts, dreams, or desires infuse each shaft?
Interestingly, most of the thoughts I find floating in the light are questions rather than statements:
- Where will joy come from today?
- What will I do today to create joy for myself and others?
- What do I most want to accomplish on this day?
- Why will this day matter?
I think many of us wake to these morning lights.
And there’s something innately helpful about them: without really noticing or consciously planning, internal questions like these are daily training in two of the most important skills of resilience: purpose and meaning.
Purpose is what we determine to do, usually outlined as specific goals we want to accomplish.
Meaning implies that our purpose and goals have inherent value and significance, both to ourselves and others.
Purpose is the “what” we do in life; meaning infuses life with the “why.”
My pre-dawn musings are a search for both.
In his novel East of Eden, author John Steinbeck described it this way:
Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”1
In my year-long study of resilience, I have devoted the month of FEBRUARY to FINDING MEANING.
How does meaning make us more resilient?
Meaning in the present helps us survive the un-survivable.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote extensively on purpose and meaning based on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He noticed that those who felt they were living for something – for service, for love, for joy – survived better than those who had nothing to live for.
This formed the foundation of the school of therapy Frankl developed after the war. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote:
Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife [imprisoned at another camp], or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘YES’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ – and the light shineth in the darkness.”2
Meaning in the future gives us hope.
Believing that we have a meaningful future bolsters activities that promote resilience, happiness, and good health.3 We take better care of ourselves. We plan carefully and set goals. We work hard to follow through on our goals.
When life feels dark in the present, our eyes strain forward, to where we believe we see the light.
Where do we find meaning?
Quoting Man’s Search for Meaning again:
…There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love…Most important, however, is the third avenue…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph (emphasis mine).”4
Dr. Glenn Schiraldi used these three avenues to develop a
Meaning and Purpose Checklist, available in its entirety in The Resilience Workbook.
Dr. Schiraldi has taught stress management at the University of Maryland and the Pentagon. He has also served on the board of resilience-related research journals and the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association.
So I figure he knows what he’s talking about.
The items in the Meaning and Purpose Checklist are broadly divided into three sub-categories: 1) work or service, 2) life experiences, and 3) personal growth.
The healthiest approach is to draw meaning from a balance of all three.
Here are a few examples of each:
Finding meaning in work or service
Many find meaning and purpose in their work. Schiraldi wrote:
How might you turn your job or career into a vocation in which your strengths are utilized in a meaningful and satisfying way? How might you redefine your job as a calling rather than drudgery? As an exercise, rewrite your job description so that people would want to apply for it. Highlight the benefits. Especially consider those aspects of the job that call forth your strengths, skills, and values — and give you the greatest pleasure, including interactions with others. After you complete this job description, imagine hiring yourself. Keep the new job description handy. Reread it when you get frustrated with your boss or when you wonder why you are doing the work you are doing.”5
Schiraldi points out that giving something meaningful to the world, either in our work or in a simple act of service, is an important way to infuse meaning in life. Some other specific ways to provide meaning in work or service include:
- joining or supporting an important cause
- writing a poem or story or creating a work of art that adds beauty, meaning, and value to the world
- serving in small ways, e.g. running errands for a neighbor or coworker, helping out at home, and lifting others up emotionally (a smile, note of thanks, a listening ear)
- doing the best we can at the task at hand
- sharing personal experiences with others of how to manage or learn from stress
Finding meaning in life experiences
Taking pleasure in nature and connectedness with others reminds us that life is inherently valuable. These can include:
- trips and adventures
- awe-inspiring places (e.g. mountains, oceans, cathedrals, museums)
- quality time with family and friends
- quality time with girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse
- good food
- beauty in nature
Beauty can be found in the most desolate places. Etty Hillesum was only young girl during WWII. She kept a diary during her imprisonment at Auschwitz in which she wrote of an “uninterrupted dialogue” with God:
Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised towards Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude…And I want to be there right in the thick of what people call horror and still be able to say: life is beautiful. Yes, I lie here in a corner, parched and dizzy and feverish and unable to do a thing. Yet I am also with the jasmine and the piece of sky beyond my window.”6
Finding meaning in personal growth
Developing personal strengths is both innately satisfying and helps us contribute to the world in meaningful ways:
- learning a new language or piece of music
- finishing an important or meaningful project
- stretching one’s mind by learning a new skill, reading inspirational literature, or playing games that are mentally stimulating
- unlearning un-helpful habits like gossiping, complaining, criticizing
- learning helpful, health-promoting habits like understanding, empathy, patience, compassion
Common Paths to Meaning
Dr. Schiraldi emphasizes that finding life’s meaning is a uniquely individual process. This is because each person has unique joys and personal strengths – what I may find meaningful may not seem meaningful at all to someone else.
This means that each person’s path to finding meaning will be slightly different.
However, Schiraldi and others like him have also discovered that most paths have some common themes. Schiraldi wrote: “Much of meaning and purpose is about developing our strengths and investing them in something larger than the self. Much of what is meaningful in life relates to using our strengths to elevate, serve, or love others – in short, helping to make others happier, which is the ultimate source of happiness.”7
Another common path involves finding meaning out of suffering. Dr. Schiraldi and others have noted that resilient individuals feel more positive after a crisis situation because they are able to find some positive meaning from it.
They even suggest that the ability to find meaning and purpose out of suffering is unrivalled as a stress coping mechanism, helping us not only to survive the stress of life, but learning to create something positive from it.
Finding meaning in suffering is such an important topic that I will devote a separate post to it this month.
Anyone interested in learning more about resilience will benefit from reading The Resilience Workbook by Dr. Glenn Schiraldi.
And if you found this post helpful, please share it. Thank you!
1 Steinbeck, J. (1952). East of Eden. Penguin Classics.
2 Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning. Simon & Schuster Inc. pp.51-52.
3 Van Beek, W., Berghuis, H., Kerkhof, A., & Beekman, A. (2011). Time perspective, personality and psychopathology: Zimbardo’s time perspective inventory in psychiatry. Time & society, 20(3), 364-374.
4 Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning. Simon & Schuster Inc. pp.146-147.
5 Schiraldi, G. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.157.
6 Hillesum, E. (1983). An Interrupted Life. Pantheon Books. pp.255, 238, 139.7 Schiraldi, G. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.161.
7 Schiraldi, G. (2017). The Resilience Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. p.161.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.