Have you ever heard of Viktor Frankl? He was an author and psychotherapist who died about 9 years ago at the age of 92. Among his other accomplishments, he wrote a great book called Man’s Search For Meaning. This book begins by showing the way Dr. Frankl would start out his therapy sessions with a new patient. Many of these patients would come to him at the end of their rope, wallowing in despair, and Frankl would start out by asking a simple question: “Tell me, why don’t you just commit suicide?” Seems like a pretty counterproductive way to begin therapy, wouldn’t you say? But, faced with such a stark question, these people, no matter how far gone in their hopelessness, were forced to come up with a credible answer. Why were they still alive? What sense of meaning made life worth living?
Frankl felt entitled to ask such a question because he himself had discovered the answer. His answer came in the concentration camps of Nazi occupied Europe. A Jewish Austrian, he was thrown into the camps for most of the war and, of course, barely survived (most around him didn’t). He was stripped of every layer of humanity left him, and survived on what is most basic to life–at least, what he discovered was most basic.
You see, he was sent to the camps with his beloved wife, but they were immediately separated, and he never saw her again. But, there was one thing that kept him going while in the camps–he could never actually be sure what happened to her. And his faith in that little uncertainty gave him hope. At the depth of his despair, he knew that he had to stay alive and live on. Why? Because, no matter how faint the odds, if it was even possible that there was someone out there who loved him and who he loved in return, he had a reason to live. Just this prospect alone gave his life meaning.
The idea that he learned and passed onto his patients was that Life is Relationship. If life has any merit, any meaning, it’s that we have the opportunity to love and be loved. Sometimes we need to be asked a startling question or endure a crisis to realize this, but this understanding exists within all of us. As goes the cliche, ‘no one on their deathbed ever wished they spent more time at the office.‘ But, it’s not a guarantee, it’s an opportunity, and it becomes something like a gift. For Frankl, it was his wife. For us, it could be a friend, a father, our spouse, our children. The sum of our worth or accomplishment in life is measured, not by how much money we have, how beautiful we are, how famous we are, but by the richness in our personal relationships.
But even in these relationships, we’re often faced with the sickly reality that we’re all pretty messed up as human beings. We often hurt and are hurt by the ones we’re closest to, often as much as we help, and being human, we’re also subject to another relational hurt–the pain of sickness and death–the pain of seeing a loved one suffer or even die. So, as much significance as we can get from our human relationships, they too can often fail us, and we’re left hungering for something more.
To me, that’s why God is the ultimate necessity for life and meaning. But, perhaps you’re one who asks the question, ‘how can I have a relationship with someone I haven’t even seen? How can that give me meaning?’ Well, it’s a bit like Dr. Frankl. He had faith in even the remote possibility of his wife’s existence, and that gave him hope. And, if we really search inside, even when we’re feeling the most hopeless or cynical about life, we’ll know that there is a God out there who loves us. Think about it. If in the deepest parts of our soul we realize that the only thing that gives life meaning, the only thing that makes life worth living, are our personal relationships, then doesn’t it make sense that the source of that life would also be personal, and relational?
In the face of our despair, we can have faith in this “little uncertainty,” that there is someone out there who won’t ever leave me, who won’t let me down, who deeply loves every stitch of my existence. Even when all my human relationships seem to be falling away, I know there is one out there who can be the father, the sister, mother, brother, the spouse or loved one I may have never had. And, on top of that, there’s a bonus. As I get to know this loving God, I can also see my human relationships more infused with the integrity and love I always wanted from them.
Do you know when God first noticed something was wrong with the world he’d created? It wasn’t Eve and the apple. It was Adam, standing by himself in the garden. In the face of his glorious creation, God saw that something was still incomplete: He said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” And, still today, we all feel this in our deepest heart. It is not good for us to be alone. We are not complete as human beings until we are in relationship. With others. With our Creator. And he is out there, loving us right now, and waiting to be loved by us. In my highs and in my lows, that’s what keeps me going, and makes life worth living.