From the outside Susan had it all. A strong marriage of 25 years, a mother of 3 wonderful children, a CEO within a thriving industry and yet not fulfilled. She was questioning why she was so driven to be ‘wonder woman’ at what appeared to be at the expense of her wellbeing and was on the verge of quitting her role. My counsel to Susan (as is usually the case) was to focus on making any internal changes, before any external changes . As we surveyed her landscape what became increasingly clear is that from an early age she had taken the path of least resistance and had followed in the footsteps of her most admired person – her father. The result was to build up a grand life, but at the expense of her true self. Upon further inquiry what transpired at the heart of her conflict was a lack of meaning about why she was doing what she was doing. The result was that Susan needed to discover her purpose to provide a clear meaning about what was most important before anything else.
My biggest learning about the need for meaning has been derived from Victor Frankl, a prominent Viennese psychiatrist who survived WW2. He endured the harrowing experience of going through seven concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Due to his professional training he was able to observe the way that both he and others in Auschwitz coped (or didn’t) with the experience. He noticed that it was the men who comforted others and who gave away their last piece of bread who survived the longest. They offered proof that everything can be taken away from us except the ability to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances. The sort of person the concentration camp prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not of camp influences alone. Frankl came to believe man’s deepest desire is to search for meaning and purpose.
Meaning and purpose are intrinsically linked. Meaning is defined as a thing one intends to convey and the implication of a special significance. In the absence of meaning we doubt, we have uncertainty, we are unsure and we fail to understand why. By having meaning we are clear, we have conviction, we know what is right and we have a strong why. Drawing upon the wisdom of the German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), one of the most profound conclusions as a result of his work which challenged psychological diagnoses showing the false consciousness infecting people’s received ideas was, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
As I write this we have just experienced some of the most torrid times in recent UK history. The horrific terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge, March 22, 2017 and London Bridge on June 3, 2017, and the tragic Grenfell tower fire on June 14, 2017. I believe that the way to survive these human tragedies is to somehow make sense of them so that a form of resolution can be reached. People will do this in their own way and in their own time. Although these atrocities are out of our hands what does lie within our grasp is the ability to make meaning of what happens to us.