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The Best We Can Do is Responsibly Answer the Questions that Life Asks of Us

Faced with mass murder, it is hard to escape the conclusion that life has no meaning. For how could it be that life has meaning when lives matter so little? As a German Jew in a concentration camp, Victor Frankl had to confront that question.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl gives two answers to the question. His first answer is a reflexive rejection of the meaninglessness of life. Frankl claims that life is "unconditional[ly] meaningful." There is something to that, but not enough to hang on to for too long. It is also not his big point.

Instead, Frankl has a more nuanced point: "If there is ... meaning in life ..., then there must be ... meaning in suffering." (Because suffering is an inescapable part of life.) The meaning of suffering, according to him, lies in how we respond to it. Do we suffer with dignity? Or do we let suffering degrade us? The broader, deeper point that underpins the claim is that we cannot always choose our conditions, but we can choose the "stand [we take] toward the conditions." And life's meaning is stored in the stand we take, in how we respond to the questions that "life asks of us."

Not only that, the extent of human achievement is: responsibly answering the questions that life asks of us. This means two things. First, that questions about human achievement can only be answered within the context of one’s life. And second, in responsibly answering questions that life asks of us, we attain what humans can ever attain. In a limited life, circumscribed by unavoidable suffering, for instance, the peak of human achievement is keeping dignity. If your life offers you more, then, by all means, do more—derive meaning from action, from beauty, and from love. But also take solace in the fact that we can achieve the greatest heights a human can achieve in how we respond to unavoidable suffering.

Related Quotes

  • "Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence."

  • "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death."

  • "Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you."

  • "a man was portrayed as someone who waited for death in a courageous and dignified way. The boy had thought it a great accomplishment to meet death so well. Now—he wrote—fate was offering him a similar chance."

  • "Dostoevski said once, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my 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."

  • "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!" (How much suffering there is to get through!) --- Rilke

  • "mankind [i]s ... doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom." --- Schopenhauer

  • The truth that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. ... through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. The meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory." [became clear to me].

  • "Human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action."

  • According to logotherapy, there are three sources of meaning: 1. Work: by creating work or doing a deed, 2. Love, Beauty, etc.: by experiencing something or encountering someone, and 3. Courage in difficult times: by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

  • "He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How." -- Nietzsche


  1. The cure for the double whammy---suffering from lack of sleep and also from the worry that sleep deprivation is taking a toll on you---is 'paradoxical intention.' "I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible."

  2. "Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue."

Other Points

  • Some psychologists are cynical, arguing that the `will to meaning' is nothing but a cover for a will to pleasure (Freud) or power (Adler).

  • delusion of reprieve: "the condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute."