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The Meaning of Life (part two)

August 28, 2009

jane tomlinson

So how do we find meaning in our lives? For each of us, the meaning of life is different – there is no universal meaning and even our own personal meaning may change over time. However,  the process of discovering meaning in our lives has common threads for each of us and Frankl describes these as:

a) creating a work or doing a deed

b) experiencing something (truth, beauty, goodness) or encountering someone (love)

c) the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering

Though Frankl listed these in this particular order, I think for those of us who are stuck in the ‘existential vacuum’ already, working through them in reverse can help us to discover the meaning in our lives. So let’s examine these a little more, beginning with the last item on Frankl’s list – the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.

We all have our own personal tragedies, although whether others would agree that these tales are tragic is another matter. The poor little rich kid who grows up psychologically wounded due to parental emotional neglect is probably looked on with contempt by the person whose formative years were an endless round of physical and emotional abuse. However, the point is not to engage in a ‘whose life sucked the most’ contest. What matters most is our attitude towards our suffering, past and present. Can we rise above our tragedies and use them to spur us on to great achievements – or indeed, achieve great things despite our tragedies? Or are we content to wallow in our role as victim and remain stuck in a pit of self-pity and blame?

Here are three poignant examples of  people who all dealt with unavoidable suffering in a positive way. Jane Tomlinson (pictured above) was struck down with cancer at the age of 36 and given six months to live. As a mother of three young children who had everything to live for, she could have easily succumbed to ‘give-up-itis’ and fulfilled her diagnosis. She became a prolific fundraiser, raising over £1.75m for respite care, nursing and research into the disease from which she suffered through participating in various sporting events that your average healthy person would struggle to complete, including a marathon and the Ironman triathlon. Her efforts added another 7 years to her life and she eventually died at the age of 43, having lived long enough to see her first grandchild. When interviewed three years before her death, Tomlinson said:

“When I was first told I was going to die, my son was only three, and I could not bear the idea that he would not remember me. At 36, I felt very much that I was too young to die. Now, at 40, I feel I have done more than a lot of people do in a lifetime. So if it’s my time this year, I would say thank you, God, for what you gave me. I mean, how many other Yorkshire lasses do you know that can say they have cycled to Monte Carlo this afternoon?”

Another famous example is Dr Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, he too could have succumbed to ‘give-up-itis’. Indeed, the majority of people suffering from his form of the disease rarely live beyond ten years following the diagnosis. 46 years later, however, Hawking is still here having had a remarkable career as a theoretical physicist, including making some influential discoveries and publishing a record-breaking bestselling book. On his website, Hawking himself says:

“I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things it prevents me from doing, which are not that many. The realisation that I had an incurable disease, that was likely to kill me in a few years, was a bit of a shock. How could something like that happen to me? Why should I be cut off like this? However, while I had been in hospital, I had seen a boy I vaguely knew die of leukaemia, in the bed opposite me. It had not been a pretty sight. Clearly there were people who were worse off than me. At least my condition didn’t make me feel sick. Whenever I feel inclined to be sorry for myself I remember that boy.

“I have had motor neurone disease for practically all my adult life. Yet it has not prevented me from having a very attractive family, and being successful in my work…I have been lucky, that my condition has progressed more slowly than is often the case. But it shows that one need not lose hope… I really enjoy life and all that it involves.”

Of course, not all tragedies are health related. Diana and Peter Lamplugh’s daughter Suzy was abducted in 1986. Suzy worked as an estate agent and disappeared after showing a house in Fulham, London to a man known only as ‘Mr Kipper’. No body has been found but Suzy has been presumed murdered and legally declared dead. The ordeal which Paul and Diana are going through – the case is ongoing – has to be every parent’s nightmare, yet rather than allowing themselves to be overwhelmed with grief, they instead decided that something good should come out of their tragedy and founded ‘The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’ to prevent others suffering the same fate as their daughter. The mission of the trust is ‘to raise awareness of the importance of personal safety and to provide solutions that effect change in order to help people to avoid violence and aggression and live safer, more confident lives’.

In an interview, Diana Lamplugh commented that surviving the enormous grief following Suzy’s abduction had been a process of “turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones”. This statement exemplifies what Frankl calls ‘tragic optimism’ – that is, the ability to ‘say yes to life in spite of everything by creatively turning life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive’. Most of us do not suffer tragedies as great as those described here, yet still we focus unhealthily on our individual misfortunes and shortcomings and allow them to hold us back. If we want to find meaning in our lives then we need to follow Diana Lamplugh’s example and turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones. We can do this by accepting all of ‘life’s negative aspects’, whatever they are. Some of these aspects may need to be embraced and actively incorporated into your life, as Jane Tomlinson did with her cancer; in other cases you may have to accept the limitations these negative aspects bring whilst learning to appreciate what you still have, as Stephen Hawking has done.

Whatever your circumstances, your attitude will be the deciding factor as to whether you remain stuck in the vacuum, merely existing and bemoaning your sorry fate – or whether you live an authentic life filled with joy and meaning.  You can find more on how to achieve a more positive attitude in parts four and five of the de-cluttering articles, where I give advice on how to emotionally and psychologically ‘de-clutter’ in order to achieve inner simplicity and a greater sense of emotional and psychological wellbeing. The emotional de-cluttering article can be found here and the psychological de-cluttering piece can be found here.

More on The Meaning of Life in part three – coming soon.

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4 comments

  1. Sharon,
    What inspiring stories you tell here. Truly it is people like these who teach us how to really live. Your work must be really satisfying, helping us all to realize our potential. Wow!
    Pam B


    • Thank you, Pam 🙂

      I’ve read your story and I’d put you up there with those inspirational people too. Your strength and positive attitude in the face of adversity is amazing and I’m very honoured that you appreciate the work I do.

      Warmest wishes to you

      Sharon


  2. I agree, attitude is what matters most. I tell students (I teach political science at a small university) that in politics and life one has to have a strong understanding of the reality principle (not citing Freud here). Namely, if you confront a situation, it makes no sense to whine about it, assign blame, feel sorry for yourself, or get mad. It is. The only thing worth spending energy on is trying to figure out how to alter things for the better. When energy is wasted on anger, blame, and denial, not only does it do no good, but it weakens the capacity to deal with a situation with a clear head. And if one can’t do anything to alter the situation, then adapt or escape, knowing there are consequences with either. To me escape would be required if adapting meant doing something I find morally wrong. But if one can accept reality and then work from there, it’s a lot easier to keep a positive attitude.


  3. […] part two, I discussed the first step towards finding true meaning in your life, referred to by Frankl as […]



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