All successful salespeople recognize the importance of the why. After all, one must have a powerful why in order to make cold calls that result in rejection far more often than not. I often ask my students why they are in college. And a few have an answer. Most just shrug their shoulders and when pressed, admit that they are there because either they have nothing else to do with their lives or because their parents made them. Sometimes students enroll in college, enter into debt, and then flunk out, simply because their why was weak or worse, nonexistent.
Finding the words that explain the meaning for your life can be crucial for those moments when suffering arrives at your doorstep. My husband and I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel. A psychiatrist from Vienna, he found himself in a concentration camp where only one in twenty-eight survived. On the first day, guards confiscated his manuscript, his life’s work. He rewrote it in his head during his long and brutal stay, focusing his attention on what gave him enough meaning to survive, living in the valley of the shadow of death.
Frankel invented what he called logotherapy, a new method of therapy that helped depressed individuals make sense of their suffering. He began from the standpoint that humans crave meaning and are willing to suffer greatly if a personal aim exists. Freud believed that pleasure was the motivation behind human behavior; Adler thought it was the desire for power, but Frankel’s logotherapy is based on the idea that people need a why in order to live fulfilled lives.
I for one tend to agree. I don’t know if he would agree with my methodology in finding a why, but I can only offer my experiences that helped me to form my own why or perhaps I should say whys.
Your why is not objective but subjective.
I think one reason my students flounder when it comes to meaning is because they believe the answer is impersonal. When I believed that my purpose was to be a good wife, a good mother, or a good teacher, I set objective standards that could never be met. I had an invisible tribunal in my head judging me on whether I was meeting those benchmarks. But being a good anything for purely objective reasons is merely an existential achievement. And existential achievements like racking up good grades, promotions, or even readers do not add to my life’s purpose.
Meaning is not found in meeting religious or legal standards. Rather meaning is found within one’s own unique self, the subjective self. I do not want to be a good writer so that my readers will say That Alice Mills is a good writer! My why is deeper than existential approval. I want to be a good writer because I have stories in me that my heart wants to tell. I want to share the dreams and love from fifty years of living with others. I don’t want to be just a good mother. I want to be a good mother to my children, specifically, whatever that might entail because I love them.
Your why is divinely connected.
Not only is my why deeply personal, but it is spiritual. Our spirits are our power sources and live forever. Energy is never lost; it just changes state. And the light or energy that God breathed into our bodies is best expressed in relationship to God. God is love and in Him and through Him we have our being. To say that our why for anything is bound up in love is an understatement.
Frankel once counseled an old man desperately grieving his wife. He told him that if he had died first, then she would have been the one grieving. Instead, he had the privilege of bearing the burden of grief for her. What a loving way to view it! His relationship with grief changed when he grasped the meaning of it. The old man’s suffering eased because Frankel helped him reframe his grief in terms of love. Greater love has no man than this, that he lay his life down for his friends, says the scriptures. And so this is the divine call to meaning, the giving of ourselves for others. Why? Because God loves them and is actively loving people through us and with us.
Refusing a why is rejecting life itself.
In inner healing sessions, I often ask people if they want to be. Many times they listen to the answer within and that response is no. Remember that God’s first statement about Himself is I am that I am. Made in His image, we are offered the chance to be. To inhabit our place on this earth with intention is to begin the process of making meaning of our lives. We matter, both materially and metaphysically.
To refuse to take up one’s life is to refuse to matter. I am here because I have gifts and loves and battles that only I can address. The world is different because I am here. Notice the word because. Make sure you know how to use that word. God did not make you without meaning because He is meaning. He is the logos. He is being. And you are made to be like Him. I fully believe that the huge suicidal rate is attributable to the lack of meaning so many find in their lives. Without meaning, only despair remains.
Your why will be tested through suffering.
Jesus suffered the cross because of the reward set before Him. What was that reward? You. You are the reward for his suffering. His why was put through the ultimate test. And your why will be tested too. Gifts must be developed, relationships must grow, and battles must be won. And each stage along the way strengthens your resolve. Marriages go hardships only to emerge stronger. So it is with everything worth sacrificing for.
But you know you have arrived at the essential whys of your life when you begin to let the non-essentials go in pursuit of what is real. Human achievement, not existential achievement, lasts forever. By human achievement, I mean the overcoming of adversities such as addiction, mental illness, abuse, lack of opportunity, poverty and the like. Each of these kinds of achievements has eternal value. Your promotion may mean a lot to you, but
it is who you are on the inside that will stand before God at the end of time.
So ask yourself why do you do your job? Why do you keep a tidy house? Why do you pursue your dreams? Whatever it is that you do, understanding your why will give you the courage to withstand the opposition, the tedium, and the difficulties that life has a way of offering up.