Almost alone among the major thinkers of psychology in the psychoanalytic school, I can read the works of Viktor Frankl with pleasure . Why is this? Among that school of thinkers there was a variety of speculations about where man’s will should be turned. Some thought it was turned to sexuality and death, others to some sort of negotiation between all kinds of contrary inner voices, some to power and control, but Frankl focused on the will to meaning. He came by this knowledge via personal experience, seeing in a naturalistic observation in Hitler’s concentration camps that those who were able to find meaning were able to endure their suffering and survive, while those who could not make sense of their experiences soon perished as a result of that loss of hope. The insight that anything which can be understood in some sense can be endured was not an easy one to make, but it has presented our contemporary age with a bit of a crisis because it is precisely meaning and significance in our existence that is so hard to find, especially given the way that many people have lost sight of ultimate truths and spent their lives focused on superficialities and trivialities.
From time to time I reflect on how people deal with crises and disasters . There are, broadly speaking, two ways that we can deal with the question of meaning when it comes to difficult times. Either meaning can be found or it can be made. There are some implications, as might be imagined, between the approach we take to meaning. To say that meaning should be found implies that there is an objective reality that exists that we have to encounter and come to terms with. To say that meaning is made or created means that we are the creators of meaning for ourselves, and that this meaning has no objective bearing, but is useful to the extent that it makes our own otherwise meaningless existence easier for us to bear. It is perhaps a noble lie, an exercise in self-deception, but it has no objective worth. To the extent that we believe meaning to be objective, we will see those who have failed to find meaning in the universe and in their lives to have objectively failed at one of the primary tasks of life, and to the extent that we believe meaning must be made, we will have a great deal of difficulty in accepting the meaning that other people have found, because we will assume it to be an act of imagination and not an objective encounter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both approaches can carry with them a certain autocratic streak that makes people difficult to deal with when it comes to wrestling with the question of meaning. If we have found one layer of meaning, we may not have found all of the layers of meaning and may not accept the meanings that other people have found if those meanings differ too radically from our own. Sometimes even the same people find different layers of meaning from the same incident. In two letters to members of Kentucky’s Speed family, Abraham Lincoln drew from the same incident of seeing slaves being readied to ship down the river an understanding that even people in the most miserable of circumstances were able to console themselves as well as a layer of meaning that there was something horrifying and inhumane about slavery that forced Northerners to crucify their feelings to put up with Southern slaveowning whites like the Speeds. Certainly other people, not least the slaves themselves, could have found other layers of meaning in the incident that were parts of a complex whole. Yet even those who say that meaning must be created can be somewhat autocratic about, not least in the way that they may seek to invalidate the comments or observations that other people can have on their experiences, considering themselves privileged as the only people who can have a valid perspective on something because of the intensity and negativity of their experiences.
How, then, are we to deal with this thorny question of meaning. As might be imagined, we exist at the boundary between an external objective reality that is often difficult for us to understand because of the simultaneous existence and influence of a subjective internal reality that other people are not privileged to see. Other people often simply have little insight into what is going on inside of us, and we similarly do not have a great insight into what is going on inside of others. Yet the subjective reality, our own or others’, is not all there is. There is an objective reality, and an objective meaning, that we can occasionally grasp, which we can demonstrate not least by the fact that people work so hard to communicate to others and to shape their understanding of the world. If there was nothing worth arguing or fighting over in language and in terms of power, there would be no purpose in seeking to mobilize others or to shape their opinions and viewpoints. The existence of objective reality means that we have to be equipped to grasp that reality, to know how to properly think so that we may reason correctly and may observe and understand the meaning that exists in creation. When we find part of the meaning that there is to find, let us always remember that there is more to reality than we can recognize, and that meaning is far more complicated than we could ever imagine. Let us not forget, after all, that set has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Meaning is a complicated manner and we would do well to remember that.
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