Over a bit of wine the other night with the National Geographic team that I’ve joined here in Ikaria (that’s where I’m based just now…more on this phenomenal place later), we were talking about the best way to arrive at happiness.
I said I don’t dig happiness, at least not the way it’s fluffed up in our culture. If it’s a byproduct of moving towards what really matters to me, then it’s a boon. But having happiness as my prime pursuit, the carrot that dangles, seems selfish and just doesn’t gel with what I believe I’m here for. I’m also not great at happiness. I get sad. To have as your prime pursuit something that you’re just not good at…well, that’s unwise. I’m pragmatic like that.
So, instead, I seek meaning. I want my life to be meaningful. I chose this a while back. Yep, pragmatic.
I’m sure happy is fun. But “rich” and “deep” light up my fire so much more. When I get close to meaning, when it tickles past me, when I touch it gingerly, when I connect with life via a dark night alone on a tiled floor with my fear, or on a mountain in searing heat with cicadas filling the gaps, or when an old lady touches my arm with tears in her eyes to tell me something in a language I don’t understand….oh, the joy, the fullness, the incredible, indescribable… prick of lifeness!
While I was hiking through Andalucia I read Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He wrote it in just nine days after being released from a concentration camp and it outlines what he thought about for the three years he was imprisoned – the importance of finding meaning.
There are three ways to glean meaning:
1. from work. contributing to life. being useful and having a legacy.
2. from experiencing. from engaging with ideas, art, nature and people.
3. and from rising above suffering.
He noticed that that the prisoners who survived had this in common: they nourished their inner life. In fact, he noted, the more sensitive people in the camps – those you’d expect to crumble – survived better. When things got tough they didn’t get sucked in by the circumstances, they rose above the suffering. They were able to dig deep into their inner life, into their sense of meaning (for it does differ between all of us). And at the darkest point of suffering, they dug deeper and found more… Their meaning, their carrot, became the rising above suffering.
Things get dark and we’re challenged and we can go either way. We can ricochet off into the outside world and try to find a solution…perhaps it’s happiness? Something else? Something to fix things. Dependent things.
Or we can go in deep. As we do, we build resilience and independence, of course (and this helps). But we also find beauty. Big, real, sumptious beauty. Just in this process of digging deep. In rising above suffering.
We can choose our own way.
This freedom, it’s ours. Truly ours. And the more suffering, sometimes, the more freedom we are able to explore. I believe this to be so, so, so true.
I’ll finish with this quote from the book:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.
And this one, too.
When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.