The Meaningfulness of Meaning: Living a Life Worthwhile

In this edition of Soul Notes, we explore the concept of meaning and what that constitutes in terms of a meaningful life.  In this article, I’ll make references to one of Viktor Frankl’s books, originally entitled From Death Camp to Existentialism, now more commonly known by the title: Man’s Search for Meaning.

A doctor of psychiatry, Viktor Frankl (Frankl) is the founder of the psychotherapeutic school of thought he named logotherapy.  In contrast to Sigmund Freud’s focus on human instincts and the human drive for pleasure, Frankl focused his work on man’s (humankind’s) quest for finding meaning in one’s life.

Part One of Man’s Search for Meaning documents Frankl’s personal experiences as an inmate in concentration camps during World War II.  In Part Two of the book, he elaborates on logotherapy and how his experiences in the camps provided the backdrop for himself to become in effect his own best patient.  Part Two includes examples of patients he treated beyond the camps along with scientific and statistical data to illustrate his points.

Prior to being captured, Frankl had already written the manuscript for his first book, The Doctor and the Soul.  He had tucked the manuscript into his coat before being forced onto the train for Auschwitz.  Once at the camp, he and all the other prisoners were stripped of their personal belongings.  Accordingly, the manuscript he had hidden in his coat was quickly confiscated.

Adding then to the already deep poignancy of Frankl’s observations made during the Holocaust, is the fact that he by necessity documented them all from memory.  He kept his mind sharp by reconstructing in his head the original manuscript of that first book that he would later rewrite and publish.  The only physical remnants of the original manuscript that he had been able to reconstruct while in the camps were in the form of key words and phrases that he would surreptitiously scribble on tiny scraps of paper.

Beyond the physical:  love, spirituality, and a  life mission

Physically separated from his wife in the concentration camps, Frankl didn’t know if his wife was still alive.  It was in his mind’s eye that he would hold onto an image of her.  Just as through love he would cling to an image of his wife –- through a sense of commitment to his life’s work and overall life’s mission –- Frankl with devotion clung to the hope and intention of (re)writing his manuscript and publishing his psychological findings, all to the benefit of his profession and mental patients worldwide.

According to Frankl, love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. Love finds its deepest meaning in one’s spiritual being, within the inner self. He also said that even during his time in captivity, glimpses of nature, music, and humor helped him and others to survive.  They were grateful, he said, for the smallest of mercies.

Frankl further went on to contend that by devoting oneself to a cause to serve or another person to love, that the more human and actualized one becomes. In view of the possibility of finding meaning in suffering, he suggested then that life’s meaning even can be potentially unconditional.

If and when conditions get tough on the outside, spirituality can play an even more important role from the inside:

“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, page 36, emphasis added).

In other words, the type of person each prisoner would become resulted more from that person’s mental and spiritual state, than purely his physical state.  Profoundly, Frankl maintained that one can decide to keep (and benefit from keeping) one’s human dignity, even in a concentration camp.

The meaning in suffering

Frankl was not suggesting that to have a meaningful life, one must suffer.  He did profess, however, that if there is meaning in life at all, there must certainly be meaning in suffering.  According to Frankl, those prisoners who discarded their inner morals, and who concluded that their lives were pointless, and thus “gave up” psychologically, were those who “forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, page 72).

The importance of having faith in the future and the power of personal choice

Frankl also understood the importance of having faith in the future. Without a belief in a better future, he said, a prisoner was subject to losing his spiritual hold, and thereby made himself more susceptible to mental and physical decay at a much more fervent pace.

So, what to do?

We may not be able to change every situation that we face in life.  We can, however, change ourselves and our approach.

Through our attitudes, choices and decisions we make and the actions we take, we can rise to any challenge and accept the opportunity to infuse any situation with meaning, even the most difficult ones.  Meaning is possible with or without (although perhaps most strikingly during times of) suffering.

Our lives are lived in moments.  And every human being, as exemplified by Frankl, has the freedom to change themselves — and their experience of any situation in life — in an instant.

 “[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, page 66).

Each of us gets to decide what our existence will be in any given moment, and what we will become in the next moment.

That is true freedom.

Freedom plus reasonableness

Freedom alone, however, is not enough.  Frankl makes clear that freedom to choose must be combined with responsibleness.  Otherwise, as a race, the human race, we are destined for destruction. Every person has both potentialities within us – to be either a swine or saint, he said.  Which one is actualized, says Frankl, depends on the decisions we make, and not on the conditions we face.

So the beauty and the promise of Frankl’s work and legacy I would say is this:

Each of us has the challenge and the opportunity to bring with us the values of our past, make empowered choices and take responsible actions in the present, and thereby create futures of the highest value to humankind.

With that, we find meaning.

All is not lost.

Much is gained.


For your consideration:

What makes life meaningful? Can there be meaning in suffering?  Is suffering required?

Okay, your turn:

What has helped you bring a sense of meaning into your life?  Was suffering part of it?

I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences by leaving a Reply in the Comments section, below. Soul-to-soul!

© 2017 Lori A. Noonan. All Rights Reserved.

Here’s to the unseen, the unheard…the silent warriors

For the unspoken ones, the quiet ones, the so-called “reliable” and “responsible” ones, this edition of Soul Notes is for you.

This is dedicated to those living with or having lived with a family member with a mental illness.   I would imagine similar experiences ring true in other trying situations in other types of family dynamics as well. With respect and reverence, I honor those, too.

Specifically, here, however, we continue what we started exploring in an earlier post where I shared that I had embarked on an intensive “Family to Family” training program delivered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I’ve completed that training, and have emerged hopefully with a deepened sense of grace and understanding.

From my own experiences, coupled with what I learned in the NAMI “Family to Family” course

My mother had her first “nervous breakdown” when I was seven. She is bipolar (or what they called back then manic depressive). By my teenage years, on more than one occasion I had witnessed her attempt to end her life. In my 20s, I experienced the downward spiral of my brother who had his own psychotic break and who did die by suicide.

When you’re a family member of someone living with a mental illness, the attention, the focus, the energy centers around that person. “Rightly so!,” you may be exclaiming. Indeed. Agreed.

The need to ascertain and ensure proper dosages of medication, the monitoring of moods, and riding the waves of ever-changing behavior — all require steadfast attention, energy and care.

The persons with the mental illness(es) often feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood. They experience severe pain, disorientation, and confusion. They suffer the pangs of unfair stigma, prejudice and ostracization. Absolutely, they need and deserve loving care and attention. (For a prior discussion regarding empathy for the mentally ill, please go here.)

Resources are created, collected, and distributed to the person or persons with the brain disorder. To the one “acting out.” To the erratic one. They have their own treatment plans, hospital wings and specialized medical personnel. They have their own support groups, etc. Again, rightly so.

But, what about the other family members who are not the ones with the brain disorder? The steady ones? The stalwart ones? The ones who bravely persevere amongst the turbulence and the mayhem? The ones who may have violence directed towards them, and who undergo stressful encounters with law enforcement and medical and paramedical personnel? Ah, there’s the rub, Shakespeare.

As an advocate for all  souls to be shining brightly, I pose this question:

How, then, to garner the attention, focus and care that YOU, as a family member, may also need?

Are your needs and desires to remain cast in the shadows, lost in all the chaotic mix that is, in a household or family structure centered around one or more members living with a brain disorder? I speak for the silent ones. The often overlooked ones. The often forgotten ones in this mix.   I take a stand for these souls. As does NAMI. NAMI’s Family to Family program is designed to support and improve the lives of family members affected by mental illness.  I applaud them, and other organizations like them, for their great work.

The Squeaky Wheel

There’s an American idiom that states in effect: “to the squeaky wheel goes the grease.” In other words, to smooth out the ride, to eradicate the noise, to silence the distraction, apply oil.

What if, however, there is no ‘noticeable’ squeak? As this philosophical question poses: “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” The answer is yes! The family members of a loved one with a mental illness are often the silent sufferers. The unsqueaky wheels DO need the grease (i.e., their own loving care and attention). As they are often the ones overlooked, that is all the more reason to pay them close heed.

Families with a mentally ill family member often cloak their experiences in secrecy. They bear the social stigma of having a “crazy” family member. They are deemed unstable-by-association. And, within their own families, the non mentally ill ones often feel and are in effect treated as if they are “invisible.”

Self-care and Support

It’s important for the family members to find healthy ways to take care of themselves, and that includes surrounding themselves with their own support system. Wonderfully, NAMI offers support groups not only for the ill persons, but for the family members as well.

As discussed in the Family to Family class, family members suffer their own unique burdens. The course classifies them into objective life burdens and the subjective burden of their own painful and often hidden, unexpressed feelings. The objective life burdens often include:

  • getting through crises with the ill family member while maintaining the needs of the other family members
  • inevitable family conflicts due to different coping styles and perspectives on how best to handle certain situations
  • finding a way to balance work or school responsibilities with treatment and care responsibilities
  • financial concerns and plans for future care
  • being “menaced” by someone you love
  • taking on dual or multiple roles within the family
  • having to grow up too fast
  • worried that you will get the illness, too
  • lack of an understanding peer group

And, again, the subjective burdens are the often unexpressed feelings and hurts associated with being a family member of someone who is mentally not well.

NAMI Graduation

Which brings me to our graduation from the NAMI Family to Family course. On a recent Saturday, I joined my twenty or so classmates in a joyous celebration. Our weeks of emotionally draining at times, uplifting at times, and overall deeply bonding time together, came to a close.

We had our own graduation ceremony. Okay, so there were no actual caps and gowns, but someone did play “Pomp and Circumstance” from her smart phone! And, we each walked up to the front of the room, and received our Certificates and some came complete with a gold seal for Perfect Attendance. Without exception, each person cheered for one another as we accepted our ‘diplomas’. We had our pictures taken with our instructors, and as a group.

We were the center of attention. We weren’t the squeaky wheels. And, we didn’t need to be. We were seen, heard, respected, appreciated and loved — for who we are and what we have each experienced. And, it felt great.

3 Suggestions to Consider:

I leave you with three suggestions to consider and to incorporate into your lives should you know of a colleague, friend, or other loved one who may be experiencing hidden, locked or unexpressed feelings as a result of living with someone with a mental illness:

  1. From a place of compassion and understanding, let them know you are available to listen, without judgment, and are open to hearing about their perspective and their experiences.
  2. Allow them to express their fear, doubt, anxiety, nervousness, frustration, anger, shame, guilt or any other telling aspects of their experiences to whatever extent they feel comfortable. This is true for adults, and especially true for children – who may need loving encouragement and reassurance that it is safe to express their feelings, and that their feelings are indeed valid.
  3. Go ahead and dote on them once in awhile! Allow them to be the center of your loving attention. Allow them to take a break, have a little fun, and let loose for a change. Life need not always be so heavy. They will likely savor every bit of those precious moments.

So, here’s to the silent brave ones! Carry on! We see you. We hear you. We care about you. You matter!

Okay, your turn:

What experiences have you had with someone whose family member has a mental illness? If you are a family member of someone with a mental illness, what one thing would you like others to understand?

I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the Comments section, below. Soul-to-soul!

© 2015 Lori A. Noonan. All Rights Reserved.

That call at 3 AM

Yes, that one. The one that jerks you awake – the bolt straight out of bed when the phone rings – kind of phone call.  Some years ago, I received such a call:

In the jet black of night, I answer the phone.

“Hello, is this Lori Noonan?” I hear a man’s voice ask on the other end of the phone line. “Yes,” I manage to say while in complete darkness as I fumble for a light switch.

“This is the County Coroner. I have news about your brother.” I am barely able to register what he’s saying and what’s really happening. I feel as if I’ve fallen into a deep, dark, hollow well.

The Coronor continues speaking, and says rather matter-of-factly: “He shot himself in the head and killed himself.”

The voice continues, stating rather brusquely: “He was found out near some railroad tracks, in his car, with a gun. In his wallet, the only contact info was a card with your name and telephone number on it. So, I’m calling you.”

I try to keep my composure and attempt to process what I’ve just been told.

Without skipping a beat, however, the Coroner just keeps talking, asking me questions and rattling off directives.

“Can you call the other family members?”

“They need to be notified.”

“Can you take care of that?”

In that moment, all I desire to do is to ask about my brother. My heart and my mind go straight there — to my brother, out in the rural outskirts of town, in the dark of night. In my mind’s eye, immediately I picture my brother out there in his car, in his final moments, full of despair.

Why by the railroad tracks, I ponder. Was he planning to stop the car on the tracks? Was that his plan and it somehow went awry? Was he worried about injuring others on the train, and backed away? Or, maybe he waited for a train to approach, but a train didn’t come by at that time of night? Oh, but he brought a gun with him, though, too. What exactly was his plan, and how long had he been planning this? What were his final thoughts? Did he really see suicide as his “only way out”?

My mind jetted from one scenario to the next and back again. Meanwhile, the Coroner is still talking.

Suddenly, the voice on the other end of the line punctures my imaginings, and pierces straight through and into my mindstream. This is when I heard something that I hope I never hear again, and pray that no one else ever has to hear when receiving this type of news:

With agitation in his voice, the Coroner says: “Okay, I gotta go now. I’ve got to get off the phone. Half his skull is missing, and there’s all kinds of blood and mess that I’ve had to clean up, and I’ve already had to stay past the end of my shift.”

I had just been envisioning my brother in the moments before his death. In my mind’s eye, he was still out there in his car, and was still very much alive.   I certainly wasn’t prepared to have that image immediately sliced through with a proverbial scalpel from the Coroner. Envisioning my brother with half his head blown off, and blood everywhere – that was an image that I neither needed nor desired.

The call just seemed so very callous. It was not as if I was an objective bystander, a non-interested third party, a ‘passer-by’ learning of this, for the first time.

It’s 3 AM, and I’m now standing in the middle of my apartment with the phone in my hand, and I feel so, so alone, so very alone.  And, my heart aches so, so deeply, for my brother. It felt as if my chest suddenly had caved in on itself. Heartache, in that moment, was anything but a euphemism.

And, it hit me that I would be the one then calling and informing the other family members.

From the darkness out into the light

Now, my intention here is not to vilify Coroners. I realize that they have a stressful job to do. I just wish that he had handled that conversation differently – with at least a bit of civility, a modicum of compassion, an ounce of sensitivity.

This happened quite a few years ago, and perhaps training and call protocols have improved since then? Or, maybe this one phone call was an anomaly? I’m realizing that it may be helpful for me to find out. It may be time for me to reach out to others who are facing or have faced suicide in their family. It may be time for me to advocate on their behalf, and to help medical professionals understand their point of view.  I’m feeling that it may be part of my own spiritual path.

Answering a Call of a Different Sort

I’m looking into ways that I may be of service, and share my experience with those in the mental health professions, and medical personnel, and the like. Recently, I’ve learned that here in the United States, there is a national organization that provides educational programs and classes for staff members who provide mental health treatment services. And, this organization has trained presenters who present on topics such as “ending the silence” in schools, and out to the general public as a way to promote awareness of mental illness.

Is this part of my calling? Yes, it feels as if it may be. Perhaps I may hold a lantern — to shed light along the dark passageways – for those with suicidal thoughts, and for those family members who feel so alone in helping themselves as well as their loved ones through such travails. At this point, it remains somewhat undefined. I am willing, however, to explore, follow my intuitive impulses, and find out.

Okay, your turn:

Do you recall a time when you received such a phone call? What, if anything, could that person have said that would have “lessened the blow”? In what ways would you be prompted to convey such a message, if you are or were in a position to inform someone of such news?

I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the Comments section, below. Soul-to-soul!

© 2015 Lori A. Noonan. All Rights Reserved.