Wanting to understand the meaning of life is a question mankind has asked for as far back as history books go and probably before that, yet answers seem to be sorely lacking in modern psychology. The basic human need of knowing the purpose of our lives has been left out of many works which shape our thinking today. For example, the meaning of life is nowhere to be found on popular psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The needs-based pyramid goes through five human needs, but the need to find meaning in our existence, either as a culture or as individuals, is decidedly absent.
The pyramid’s base forms the most basic need for mere survival. This level includes physical needs, things like food, water, oxygen, warmth, sleep, and so on. The pyramid works up through three additional levels of deficiency needs related to safety, love and belonging, and esteem. Crowning the pyramid is self-actualization. This involves creativity and acting on the desire to reach your full potential. Self-actualization deals primarily with self-fulfillment.
Nowhere on the pyramid is the meaning of life, yet from the earliest stories of the Bible to modern day theologians like Matthew Kelly from dynamic Catholic know that understanding the meaning of life is even more important than food, water, and even oxygen. While these survival needs keep you alive temporarily, these wise scholars know the temporariness of such needs. Not only do they keep you alive only while on Earth, gaining them in a negative or sinful way, such as through theft, dishonesty, or depriving another these gifts, kills a part of your spirit. This means that even while physically surviving, the part that makes you unique, special, fearfully and wonderfully made, dies a little on the inside.
Instead, those who cultivate a not ordinary mindset, understand good comes from suffering and even physical deprivation when we know our lives, and especially our suffering, has meaning.
Some of history’s most extreme cases of suffering and deprivation at every level of Maslow’s pyramid can be found in the experiences of victims of Nazi concentration camps yet for some, meaning was present in the agony. Nazi concentration camp survivor and German Jew, Victor Frankel, lost everything as a prisoner of war yet speaks of finding meaning in his pain. His book Man’s Search for Meaning chronicles some of his mindset as a Nazi prisoner of war. He states the unequivocal truth that, while one cannot always control circumstances or surroundings, one is always capable of controlling the attitude with one approaches suffering.
One who knows the why can endure any how.
The above is a Frankle idea. To know this man lost his wife and entire family, all his worldly possessions, and reputation and the respect of society and also watched torture and death day in and day out for three years, and was able to find meaning in his life, puts our problems in perspective.
The biggest obstacle to shifting our mindset from focusing on our basic needs to understanding the meaning of life is our inability to find meaning behind suffering. We often count suffering as a denial of material goods, wealth, or the loss of relationship. The most difficult suffering to bear though is to not understand the meaning behind that deprivation. It’s what makes fasting for a cause so much more endurable than just not eating for a day.
Modern man has done much to eliminate God from his world, yet our struggles have only increased and our lives have only seemed less meaningless. To find true meaning, we must understand why we are created. The Catechism of the Catholic Church neatly sums this up the truth of our creation and the meaning of life woven throughout Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers by stating we were created to know, love, and serve God in this life so we can be happy with Him in the next. It is simple, yet deprivation and pride are a lethal mix pulling us away and down a self-seeking path devoid of long term meaning.
To shift your mindset from a deprivation based pyramid to allow meaning to flow in and out of all stages, you must understand that nothing touches your life that God does not allow. This means the suffering you are currently experiencing or will be hit out of the blue with soon must work for your good or the good of another. Many claim to know they will see good in what happened eventually, but there is more to finding meaning in life by looking back on hardship. Finding meaning at its highest levels comes from the ability to find meaning in the present painful moment. It means that you choose to find opportunities to learn and grow and experience God truly present with you in the center of your storm. Finding meaning means you refuse to wait to be grateful and to give thanks, but choose to live every moment in appreciation for that particular moment.
Finding meaning in life, beyond the superficial, requires a trust and letting go of the desire to control situations, outcomes, people, and God. It happens only but only if you request the Grace and open mindedness needed to find meaning in the moment rather than searching and demanding to get out of suffering as quickly as possible.
When you understand good come from hardship, it does not eliminate the pain of hardship. It does challenge you to reach new heights of faith and confidence. It gives you perspective those who stay in the valleys will never see.
Gratitude Journal – May 2, 2023
Thank You God for…
- A spot of sunshine on the grass.
- So many long shadows.
- The crisp cool (cold) breeze.
- The BRIGHT sunshine shining through amazingly dark and wonderful clouds.
- Meema taking us to dinner.
- Two emails thanking me.
- C’s game.
- Chatting with M and B and E. 🙂
- A return of confidence and surety at work.
- The Saint Joseph Consecration