If you’re asking the world to show you the meaning of life, then you’ve got it backwards. The world is asking you that question . . . and there are only three places to find the right answer.
“It doesn’t really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us.”Viktor Frankl
“What is the meaning of life?”
There are few questions that are more human . . . and few that are more arrogant to ask. It’s a bit like going to a job interview and demanding to know what they can do for you, rather than showcasing why you’re perfect for the position.
The world is asking the questions, and the world doesn’t really care what you expect from it. But here’s the good news for Stoics: real meaning doesn’t come from what the world gives you, but how you respond to it.
3 Paths to Purpose: Creating, Caring & Conquering
“Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”Viktor Frankl
Focusing on what you “deserve” from the world won’t help you discover purpose (and will end in disappointment, anyway). Instead, Stoicism teaches to stop asking questions and look to the tasks that life is putting in front of you.
It’s in dealing with life’s requirements — yes, even the most painful ones — that you’ll find the best reasons for existing.
There are three ways to do that: by CREATING stuff out of materials that the world gives you; by CARING for people who the world puts in your life; and by CONQUERING unavoidable suffering that the world puts you through.
#1: Creating Stuff
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”Viktor Frankl
We can’t choose what the world gives us to work with, but we can choose how we use, shape, organize and build with it.
You don’t have to be the best at something to find purpose and joy in it. Our ancient ancestors found just as much fulfillment in creating stuff with rocks as Leonardo da Vinci got from painting the Mona Lisa.
Finding meaning in life through work, art, writing, bettering ourselves, hobbies and even menial tasks are all forms of “creating.” Any challenge that involves using your surroundings, making new things or improving something is an opportunity to find purpose — regardless of whether it’s glamorous or not.
#2: Caring for Others
“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”Viktor Frankl
This source of meaning is the simplest to understand, because it’s so deeply ingrained in the experience of being human. Every person has the opportinity to find purpose in life by caring for others; whether as a friend, a teacher, a parent, a leader, or even as an anonymous supporter.
The joy of caring for others isn’t just limited to direct relationships with people. This kind of meaning can also be realized by involving yourself in causes and charities, helping groups and organizations, and living your life in a way that will help others when you’re gone.
#3: Conquering Unavoidable Suffering
“We may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”Viktor Frankl
The important part first: Stoicism does not teach that suffering is necessary to find meaning in life. If you can avoid suffering, then you absolutely should.
But if our suffering is truly unavoidable, then it’s possible to find significant meaning in how we face the pain, or how we “conquer” it. When the world drops a difficult challenge on us, we can make it our mission to distinguish ourselves by bravely facing it.
Keep in mind that conquering unavoidable suffering doesn’t necessarily mean we make pain go away. We can “conquer” suffering, disability and even death by how we choose to deal with them.
Unavoidable suffering — whether from illness, accidents, old age or loss — visits all of us, eventually. When it does, it’s possible to find purpose by accepting that it’s our own, unique task to face the suffering. We can both define ourselves and provide an example to others by how we bear it.
A note from the author:
This article was inspired by the writing of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Stoic philosopher. If you’d like to learn more about his work, please check out his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.