A buddy of mine and I were having a conversation about the lack of meaning we had both experienced in the military life. After I had told him about Viktor Frankl he said, “That is very interesting. So you are saying that everyone is really trying to find meaning in life.”
“Now some people would say that simply searching for that meaning is what really matters,” he went on. “That whether or not you find that meaning doesn’t make a difference as long as you are searching for it. That is reason enough in itself. What would you say about that?”
I thought for a bit. “I don’t think that can be right,” I answered.
“I don’t necessarily agree with these people. I am just pointing out that some people believe that and asking what you think.”
“I think that that is partially true. It is a falsehood based on a partial grasp of something that really is going on. They are grasping that they need to search for some meaning in life, but to say that it doesn’t matter whether they find it or not is nonsense. The only reason for searching for something is in order to find it. If it is unfindable, or if it simply does not exist, then what on earth is the point of searching for it?
You see, this meaning is not something arbitrary and personal. You cannot simply decide, ‘Well, I am just going to say that stamp collecting is the meaning of life,’ and be satisfied with that. Meaning is not something we create, it is something we discover, or fail to discover.
The people who hold to that belief are not completely wrong. In fact, they are on the right track, so far as they have gone. They have half the truth. They have grasped the fact that we are missing something, and the awareness of this loss is a step in the right direction…”
At this point we side-tracked to a short discussion of semantics. He submitted that “lack” was a better word than “loss,” since “loss” implies possession at some point in the past, whereas it seems pretty clear that the person has never possessed this “objective meaning.” I accepted his correction since I realized that I had unconsciously been drifting towards a collective loss, the Original Sin of Catholic theology, which was not really our topic.
“All right then, so they have come to feel this sense of something lacking, which is a step in the right direction. But that is not enough. Being aware of a lack all day long will not bring you one whit closer to filling it. Remember, it isn’t an illusion, it is an actual objective lack of something that we really, desperately need.
Think about it like this. Suppose there is someone who is anorexic. For whatever reason she simply does not eat, and she is wasting away. For her to feel hungry is a good thing, even though it may be less comfortable than simply not having an appetite. It means she is becoming aware that she is missing calories. However, no amount of hunger will do anything towards putting actual calories into her stomach. For that she will need to act upon her hunger and find some real food and eat it.”
He nodded. “Hmmm. Interesting. Well, you have a good weekend.”
“You too,” I answered.