In his classic bestseller, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychiatrist and holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl explains that among the first things that he had to do once he arrived at Auschwitz was to surrender his clothes. This is humbling in itself, of course. But this was extraordinarily painful for Frankl, because in the jacket of his coat he had hidden the manuscript of his first book, in which he had invested so much of himself. In turn, he inherited the rags of an inmate who had already died in the gas chambers. In the pocket, Frankl found a page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, including the most important Jewish prayer, “Shema Yisrael.”
“How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to LIVE my thoughts instead of merely put them on paper?” he writes.
As I read that, I thought about the lowest point in my life. After my inpatient hospitalization for suicidal depression, I was placed in an outpatient program, which typically lasted two weeks. Six weeks later, I was still a mess. The nurses told me I clearly needed more help, but that they were forced to discharge me because my insurance wouldn’t pay for any more weeks.
So I asked for my bag of prescription drugs back.
This was the plastic bag that held all of the 20 different types of medication combinations I had tried in the months prior—about 30 bottles of drugs that I saved to kill myself in case I ran out of hope. At one point in the sessions, I admitted to having the bag, and handed it over as a gesture of faith … to be moving forward. But on that afternoon that I flunked out of the program, I could not see forward. All I saw was pain. If the psych nurses and a team of mental health professionals—including all the psychiatrists I had seen prior to my hospitalization—couldn’t fix me, what were my chances of ever moving beyond the pain?
I wept the entire way home.
My car parked in the driveway, I issued God an ultimatum. “Either you send me a sign that I’m supposed to hold on, or I’m out of here. I AM SO OUT OF HERE!”
Carrying the bag of drugs with one hand, I fetched the mail with the other.
In one of the letters was a medal of St. Therese, the same metal I had been carrying in my purse—clutching in times of panic—since my depression began.
It was my sign.
Like the Jewish prayer in Frankl’s pocket, the medal conveyed that maybe, in some way we can’t comprehend, this world does make sense—there is some meaning here–and that even the moments of excruciating pain are not lost. They are not without value.
Nietzsche said, “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW.”
Frankl repeats that quote several times throughout his text, as it encapsulates what he calls “logotherapy,” a mental health approach that focuses on a patient’s search for meaning.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment,” Frankl writes. “Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
According to Frankl, we can discover this meaning of life in three different ways:
- By creating a work or doing a deed,
- By experiencing something or encountering someone (i.e., marriage or parenthood),
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
It’s his last category that both surprised and inspired me. Frankl writes:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, where facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.
The meaning is found in the self-transcendence, going beyond the self, in each of these ways—and the meaning, in turn, leads to peace and happiness, or the absence of depression.
I finished the book knowing myself a bit better. While I aspire to be the best mom and wife I can, I emerged from his text knowing that the meaning of MY life resides in the third category: to live gracefully—without bitterness–with this kind of chronic, treatment-resistant depression I have. And in doing that, to show others that it is possible to have a full life even in the midst of death thoughts and apathy—that by connecting to others in pain, we transcend our own debilitating circumstances.
And that meaning—well, that sets me free.
I’m given the same kind of reassurance as when I discovered the medal of St. Therese.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Published originally on “Sanity Break” at Everyday Health.