I was scrolling through Facebook one day, when I saw this article about the “blah” we’ve been feeling through this pandemic. That “blah“—as defined by psychologists—is this sense of stagnation and emptiness. I’ve been feeling that way for quite some time now, and it honestly never went away. If people personally knew me, I was this person who was optimistic and excited about living; I’ve always been so enthusiastic about what life was about to offer me. But perhaps due to this senseless routine of waking up, logging into my computer to work, complying with requirements, and other monotonous tasks, I have definitely lost that excitement. And I couldn’t bring it back.
Psychologists had a term for it; they coined this feeling “languishing“. This languishing fell on the extreme side of the mental health spectrum, opposite to “flourishing,” according to psychologist, Corey Keyes.1 As written in the New York Times, 2 languishing felt like the “neglected middle child of mental health; the void between depression and flourishing.” Flourishing, on the other hand, referred to this state of positive experiences with delightful emotions and social functioning most of the time. And sadly to say, I was in no place nearing the flourishing side of the spectrum. I felt like every day was just this attempt of getting through the week without purpose; it was a kind of grief that made me worried I wouldn’t get back to my usual self.
One way I try to cope with these sorts of emotions was by reading. I recalled a close friend of mine highly recommending this book by a psychologist who had experiences in a concentration camp in Auschwitz during the Second World War, and these experiences led to life-changing realizations about the human condition in the perspective of prisoners at the concentration camps. The book is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
I read this book because I thought it could have helped me become more aware of myself. I also felt like I wanted non-secular3 advice on these struggles of mine, because I was just simply curious how Frankl would analyze the human condition through traumatic experiences in concentration camps. So I decided to pick it up and take it seriously. With an open mind, I knew I was ready to rediscover and learn so much.
I. Languishing can be some sort of existential vacuum.
The existential vacuum, as defined by Frankl, is “the void within people; a lack of awareness of a meaning worth living for“. I couldn’t help but notice how similar this can be to languishing. And maybe the majority of us, in a sense, have this existential vacuum in our hearts that we just can’t simply relieve.
Maybe it’s the fact that there’s still too much to cross off our daily schedules or we’re too caught up with being productive that when we’re actually sitting down and doing nothing, there’s this guilt embedded within us that we’re doing something wrong. What makes me so overwhelmed is that it seemed like the world was running too fast despite a pandemic that seemed to never end, and I was hardly given enough time to stop and ponder about my life.
II. Life is a personal seeking of the essence of our existence.
The main gist of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is this: “Our motivation in life is to search for a meaning.” That’s why we keep going—we have goals to accomplish and we would eventually want to see the bigger picture. But this is where we often struggle the most. We’re always being asked—What is the meaning of life?—expecting that life is the same for everybody, demanding life to give us an answer. It made me realize that I had to stop asking life the hard questions; let life question us. What is life expecting from us, anyway?
According to him, meaning can be experienced in at least three ways, (1) in creating a work or a deed, (2) experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) having the right attitude towards unavoidable suffering.
We find meaning by creating a work or doing a deed.
I remember having a striking conversation with one of my high school best friends. We were catching up, talking about our degrees and how we would like to push through with it in the future. This was all too memorable to me because it was in this conversation that I shared to him that I really wanted to push through with my degree despite its difficulties. I had this epiphany of knowing this will be worth it.
He’s a Computer Science major, and he told me about how he was sure of his degree because right from the start he knew he wanted to develop his own games. But things started to change when he heard the talk of another CS graduate who was initially a game developer too. This CS graduate was invited to be part of a research company that used software to detect cancer cells in the body. He was hesitant at first, but this CS graduate joined. This is where my friend realized that there were still so many things to do with a Computer Science degree—it’s not just about game, phone, or web development—we had this freedom to explore the possibilities of our degrees. It’s not always about what the majority thinks it’s for. My friend then realized that “Passion is nothing without purpose,” and that made me think a lot.
I’m still not sure what I’ll be capable of doing in the near future after my degree,4 but one thing’s clear, I want to be part of some solution. I want to contribute something to help others in need, and I think that would be a respectable purpose for my engineering hardships right now.
We find meaning by experiencing someone or something.
Another way of finding meaning is to experience, according to Frankl. And if there was one breathtaking realization that came to mind while reading this segment of the book, it was this. I was genuinely surprised, because as I said earlier, I was trying to look for non-secular arguments within this book. But I couldn’t help but think about God in my scenario, and how experiencing God is my most central purpose in this life I have right now. It may be different for others, but in a Christian’s perspective, I was reminded that God is the center of it all, and especially my life.
I can’t speak for the rest of the people reading this, but to experience something in its entirety—such as goodness, truth, and beauty—is indeed a meaning in itself. I remember watching Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and it was in these final moments that the ring bearer Frodo was on the verge of giving up. His companion and best friend, Sam, had this whole, tear-jerking speech5 about how characters from different stories had these opportunities to turn back, only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something. And hearing those lines sort of stuck to me.
“What are we holding on to, Sam?”
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
We find meaning by finding the right attitude towards suffering.
This sounds like a more sophisticated version of “Everything happens for a reason,” but it can also be deeper than that, in my opinion. Suffering in itself is meaningless, but we can give it meaning with the way we respond to suffering. I was reminded that if we don’t have absolute control of a situation in our life, remember that we can control how we feel and respond to it. There will always be room for personal growth. It’s in these moments we are given the opportunity to rise above one’s self. Frankl put it up like this,
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
I’d also like to point out that not every suffering is indeed necessary. Frankl speaks of those unavoidable circumstances of suffering. And if it is possible to remove the cause of suffering, then that must immediately be done so, since unnecessary suffering is “masochistic instead of heroic“.
III. We must be tragically optimistic about our circumstances.
If there’s one thing I am trying my best to avoid talking about, it’s the case of toxic positivity. And I’m not trying to advocate for toxic positivity in these circumstances. We know that happiness and optimism cannot be forced into a person. They must have a reason for their happiness. Generally, then, we aren’t in search of happiness in itself, we’re actually in search of a reason to become happy. Frankl explains that happiness must be ensued. Happiness comes after realizing a sense of purpose, and so, the first step to finding authentic happiness is to remind yourself of the why of your living.
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
It is in fact called “a tragic optimism“—an optimism in the face of tragedy—because it raises the question, “Is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all the pain, guilt, and death in this world?” Frankl notes that what matters is to make the best out of any given situation. Turn the suffering into a future achievement, because I am also a firm believer that one day we would look back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I managed to push through that.” As of now, we’re at this point that we just have to take responsibility and make the best out of these experiences.
All of this is easier said than done, I know. There will be days where we will feel the weight of our burdens and it will feel like we will continuously carry it on our shoulders, but I’m hoping that we take some time for ourselves to rethink the most important questions in life. Let introspective thoughts come, accommodate them, process the pain, and give ourselves time to find meaning in our life—one day at a time.
Hang in there, and I truly hope for the best of all our well-beings. We will flourish eventually.
1 Read more about the psychology of languishing and flourishing here
2 New York Times article here
3 A little context, Frankl, in fact, was a practicing Jew, but he was very careful not to impose his beliefs on others. He was this sort of psychologist who believed that people have different meanings in life, and it’s only through themselves that they can be responsible for their own lives.
4 I have a lot of things in mind, but then again, I’m still not absolutely sure how I can contribute something. But as of now, I want to widen my knowledge more on coding for data analysis/visualization and audio signal processing.
5 Watch my favorite LOTR scene here