What is Meaning-Making? 3 Powerful Lessons From a Holocaust Survivor

What do you see when you look at the world? Let's explore the topic of meaning making and the impact it has, and can potentially have on our lives.

What is Meaning-Making? 3 Powerful Lessons From a Holocaust Survivor

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One of my favourite books of all time is Man's Search For Meaning by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl. 

The book tells the chilling yet inspirational story of his struggle to hold on to hope during years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps.

Through every waking moment of his ordeal, Frankl's training as a psychiatrist lent him a remarkable perspective on the psychology of survival.

As a result of his experiences, Dr. Frankl developed a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy.

At the core of his theory is the belief that man's primary motivational force is his search for meaning.

Though he doesn't specifically use the term "meaning making", the concept is essentially the basis of the entire book, and his insights went on to influence later psychologists.

In this post, I'm going to be analyzing one of the most interesting passages of the book and exploring the lessons we can draw from it in our everyday lives. 

But first, I'd like to get your thoughts on a picture...

Two Faces, One Vase

What do you see when you first look at the picture above?

When I look at the picture I instantly see two faces, but others first see a vase.

What you're looking at is a variation of Rubin's vase - sometimes referred to as "The Two Face, One Vase Illusion" - a famous set of two-dimensional forms developed around 1915 by the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.

This image has always fascinated me, because it leads to the question:

  • How can two people look at the same picture and interpret it differently?

Which reminds me of a distantly related question:

  • How can two people go through the same traumatic situation and come out of it with two completely different outlooks on what happened?

While the answer to the first question is related to the concept of visual perception, the answer to the second question is related to the concept of meaning-making.

What is Meaning Making?

Meaning making refers to how individuals understand, interpret, rationalize and make sense of life events, in the light of their previous knowledge and experience. 

Thus, the process of meaning-making is deeply personal and unique because it focuses on the individuality of the meaning-maker. 

That is why two people (e.g. siblings) can go through the same life events and yet come out with completely different experiences. 

Meaning making is a useful coping strategy in stressful or disturbing situations, because it typically involves searching for a more favourable understanding of the situation and its implications. 

This new understanding can give birth to a new experience, which is often more liberating , purposeful, and noble than the physical reality of the situation that one finds themselves in. 

In Man's Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl shares a powerful example of meaning-making...

The Meaning of Suffering

As Frankl explains, when we are no longer able to change a situation - think of an incurable disease such as an inoperable cancer - we are challenged to change ourselves.

Meaning making gives us the ability to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement.   

Here is the example that Frankl relates:

"Once an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. 

Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? 

Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question: 

'What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?'

'Oh,' he said, "for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!' 

Whereupon I replied, 'You see Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering - to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.' 

He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.'

3 Key Lessons Learned

When I first read this story, I became tearful.

What a remarkable effect this rewritten narrative had on the grieving doctor, that he had spared his wife the pain of loss, by being the one who was left behind!

Here are the key lessons I got from this story:

1. Attitude is everything

Why did the Doctor find relief?

Frankl did not bring his wife back to life from the dead. However, he did help him change his attitude toward what had happened. 

Meaning making is useful in situations where we cannot change our fate...which is most of the time

In the moment that we are able to change our attitude and find a meaning in our suffering, we are able to find relief and continue through life with a renewed sense of purpose.

2. Humans Crave Meaning

As humans, we crave meaning in our life. 

As well as looking to find the meaning of life in general, as humans we love to find the meaning in everything that occurs in our life. 

We like to see connections between events in our lives, we like to believe that one event or situation laid the foundation for another. 

That is why we can be ready to suffer for what we believe in, because we believe that our suffering will have a meaning. 

This does not mean that suffering is necessary to find meaning. It does however mean that meaning is possible in spite of suffering. 

3. We can find meaning through others 

Sharing experiences with others is one of life's greatest gifts. 

Humans, by nature, are social creatures and we gain happiness and joy from interacting with, and learning from one another. 

We also gain meaning from loving others. 

As Frankl also notes in the book, "being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone other than oneself...

...the more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself."

As the bible says, "there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving." 

That is why, during low points in our lives, we often find that our spirits are lifted when we are able to help others. 

Even if you feel like you have little to give, when you do give to others you will always find yourself getting back more than you gave. 

Final Thoughts

So friends, those are some insights on meaning-making that I believe can have a tremendous impact on our daily lives if we allow them to. 

At the end of the day, although you cannot control what happens to you in life, you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

Meaning making gives us back control when we feel that our life is spiralling out of control. 

The main catchphrase that's found in Man's Search for Meaning is borrowed from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: 

"He who has a 'why' for which to live can bear with almost any 'how'".

So I guess, going forward, the final question left to ask is:

What will be the 'why' that gets you through almost any 'how'?

Thank you for reading this article. Please share if you enjoyed it.

Also, are there any examples of meaning-making that have helped you cope in your own life? Comment below!

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