Does Life Have Purpose and Meaning?

An imaginary conversation with teenagers*

Genrich L. Krasko

 

 

 

Good morning/afternoon.

I would like to talk to you about something that could be very important to you now and in the future. The title of my talk – the question – may seem strange if not meaningless. Of course, most people do have a purpose: to launch a career, to raise a family; to become affluent.

Actually, becoming affluent is a significant part of what is called The American Dream. Generations of people had been immigrating to America, escaping persecutions and poverty, and they have built this nation.

Your main motivation for going to school is to acquire skills so that you can find a good job that would make enough money to support yourself and live the way you're used to living… You'll probably want to own a house, a car (possibly two or three), raise a family, give education to your children, and, eventually, become rich. Unlike some other countries, in America the rich are not hated; rather, they are inspirations for one’s work and advancement.

Unfortunately, in today’s economy, without a university degree, it is difficult to find a job, which pays good money. No matter how hard financially it can be for your parents, they will try to put you through a college. No wonder, that when thinking about your future life, most of you would choose a profession that would bring a lot of money, and as soon as possible.

Yet, is there anything more important in life than just making money and being affluent? My answer is YES, and I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on this issue.

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Genrich Krasko. I was born and educated in Russia. My first name – Genrich (always mispronounced) – is a Russian transcription of a German name: Heinrich. My parents (mother – a teacher, and father – a journalist) probably wanted me to become a poet, and that is why they named me after the great German poet Heinrich Heine.

I have not become a poet. I have become a scientist: a physicist. In 1965 (probably before your parents were born) I defended my Ph.D. thesis in “theoretical solid state physics,” and began my career.

At about your age, still in high school, I understood that I had been living in a society founded on lies; that the U.S.S.R. was not “the best, the freest and the most democratic country in the world,” as millions of people had been brainwashed to believe, but rather a brutal totalitarian regime, a version of fascism. A couple of years later, as a college student, I even joined (together with my future wife) an “underground” group where we, 19-year-olds, under the “leadership” of a boy our age (who is now a distinguished professor at Boston University) attempted to understand what had gone wrong with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. We were nave and careless and did not know how dangerous our “activity” had been. If apprehended, each of us could easily have earned a 20-year sentence in a labor camp (some five years before, in 1948-49, we could even have faced a firing squad).

When I was about 40, I came to the conclusion that, in order to be at peace with my conscience, I had either to fight the regime, or leave the country. The first option was too dangerous for my family (our only son was turning 13 at that time). Also, less and less did we see communist Russia as “home.” Even though our family was rather well off by Soviet standards (both my wife and I had Ph.D. degrees, which entitled us to higher salaries), the future of our only son in the world of brainwashing and semi-hidden anti-Semitism, seemed to be quite gloomy. Therefore, we decided that we had to emigrate. That was not easy. Thousands of people had been refused exit visas and joined the so-called Zionist Movement – the movement fighting for Jewish emigration. I joined it and began helping to edit an illegal hand-typed (“samizdat”) magazine Jews in the Soviet Union. Our telephone was bugged, and a KGB (the infamous secret police) car was always parked outside our apartment building.

In May 1977, KGB agents barged into our apartment with a search warrant. They found hidden copies of the newest issue of the magazine (a good chunk of the circulation) and confiscated them, along with some "forbidden" books, including the Bible, and even our typewriters. With that event, our decision to leave Russia became final. We applied for exit visas, and fortunately, we were allowed to leave Russia just six months later.

December 1977, when my family immigrated to Israel, was for us the beginning of a new life. In 1980, we moved to America. Since then, for nearly 30 years, I worked at research laboratories, taught at universities, and published over 150 research papers. I retired in 1999. For 11 years prior to retirement, I worked for the government at the US Army Research Laboratory. These were the happiest years of my career as a scientist because I was working for the defense of the United States. A major turn in my life happened when I was almost 60, after having discovered and read the books by the late Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and author of the internationally acclaimed book, Man’s Search For Meaning.

It suddenly dawned on me that no matter how much I loved my work as a physicist, I wanted more in life than just doing sophisticated quantum mechanics. In 2004 I published a book in which I spelled out my concerns with the problems young people are facing today. I dedicated the book to Viktor Frankl and my granddaughter (who is now 21). Dr. Frankl, shortly before his death, wrote the Foreword. Though we corresponded by mail, and had a few telephone conversations, I did not meet Dr. Frankl in person. In September 1997 I traveled to Vienna for a physics conference and wanted to see him, but he passed away the day I arrived. To thousands people throughout the world that was a tragedy.

I want to tell you a little bit about this great man and his ideas and then I want to ask you to think about how these ideas may be relevant to you.

Frankl was a rising star in the field of psychiatry in pre-World War II Austria. In 1942, when the Nazis occupied his homeland and his beloved Vienna, he, being Jewish, was deported and thrown into a Nazi concentration camp. Due to his spiritual strength and his will for life, he managed to survive even Auschwitz – the most notorious death camp of all – and became a living proof of the main thesis of his philosophy. In a nutshell it is simple:

 Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones

We can find meaning in how we think, in what we do, in what we experience, and even when we

are faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering

His many books have been translated into dozens of languages, with Man’s Search For Meaning being the most internationally acclaimed.

What is this book about? Dr. Frankl wrote:

For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay], people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.

 

 • How do you understand the last sentence? What is it that you live for? What do you really care about?

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Most of us want to have more and more of everything: whether it is clothes, electronic gadgets, cars – you name it. Very rarely do we ask ourselves a simple question: What for?

And this is the gist of all Frankl’s books: When people have lost a meaning to live for, they find themselves in a state that Frankl calls the existential vacuum. What does that mean?

Existential means something touching on the core of existence of an individual who is a human being, rather than simply a thinking animal. And a vacuum is emptiness. People’s lives are empty; they don’t know what to do with their lives. Probably, they do what other people are doing, or what other people wish them to do (think about a barrage of persistent advertising 24-7!).

Boredom is the main symptom of this emptiness. Sometimes it becomes unbearable, and then its close companions: depression, addiction and aggression become threats not only to the afflicted person, but to society as well. “Depression” does not mean that people have to live on Prozac (although the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly makes over $2 billion a year on this drug), but a depressed mood and anxiety are sure symptoms. Addiction to illicit drugs is the most harmful form of addiction. Marijuana is believed to be the least harmful of them, though recent studies challenge this optimism[1]. More “innocent” forms of addiction, such as the Internet, video and computer games and entertainment in general, which are so widespread today among both young people and adults do not kill boredom; they merely ease its grip for a short time. As for aggression – and violence as its immediate expression – we see it both in real and “virtual” life, and in the entertainment media almost 24-7.

You see, an existential vacuum is dangerous. What I would like to discuss with you today is how you can avoid being trapped in it.

The question presented earlier: What is it that I live for? is fundamentally human. Animals never ask this question. Looking back at your answer, think about what it is in your answer that shows you are a human being, not an animal. Is there something in your answer that can point the way to how to avoid the existential vacuum that I talked about ?

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If you had a hard time answering this question, that’s all right. What's important is that you, no one else, are the one to answer it. Frankl wrote about you:

As to the young people, it is their prerogative not to take for granted that there is a meaning to life but to dare to challenge it.

Frankl believed that even if a person cannot find an answer but is striving to find it, it becomes “a human achievement and accomplishment. Above all, it is a manifestation of intellectual sincerity and honesty.” To some people it takes years to find the answer. And there is no universal answer for everybody. Everyone’s answer is unique.

Although the task of finding a purpose in life is your own, it would be only right if someone helps you, even a little bit, in fulfilling this task. That is what I was keeping in mind when I have decided to talk to you.

Before discussing what a purpose in life can be, a short note: There is a slight difference between Purpose and Meaning. Purpose is what you aim at, the vector, i.e. the direction where you are going. Meaning is what you acquire. You probably feel that difference.

Let us return to the natural purpose in life that I already mentioned. Moving towards achieving success can be illustrated by a simple diagram:

However, Viktor Frankl claimed that a human being’s life develops not just in one direction: between FAILURE and SUCCESS, but rather in two: One has a freedom to move – so to speak – on a two-dimensional plane:

The horizontal axis that I already mentioned is the easiest one: That is where aspirations of most people are: To build a career, to become affluent. A loser, in most people’s minds, is someone far on the FAILURE side. But there is another direction a person is able to and does walk: that between DESPAIR/BOREDOM and MEANING/FULFILLMENT.

For Frankl, FULFILLMENT is different from the “fulfillment” of someone who has just made money in trading stocks. In what sense? There is another word: SATISFACTION. In everyday life SATISFACTION and FULFILLMENT are often used as synonyms. But, to think of it, they are different. We associate SATISFACTION with pleasure, contentment, self-appreciation. FULFILLMENT has a deeper meaning: something that FULly FILLs you! This has to do with one’s spiritual life – a SATISFACTION with developing oneself, FULFILLING one’s talents and potential as a human being, doing something that one feels is RIGHT– as a human being.

Frankl often talks about self-actualizing oneself, which means developing the hidden qualities of one’s personality that makes one a full-fledged member of our humane civilization: with all the responsibilities and rights.

• What do you think civilization is? What does it mean that our civilization is humane? What does it mean to be its full-fledged member? What are our responsibilities and rights?

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If one’s trajectory along the FAILURE-SUCCESS path is visible – people want everybody to see their success and want to hide their failure – one’s standing on the DESPAIR-FULFILLMENT scale is deeply personal, often hidden even from the closest people.

 

As you now understand, in any society all four quadrants of the plane are occupied. Here are some examples:

A successful lawyer who finds time in her tight schedule to play in a hospital maternity board with abandoned toddlers finds her place in the upper right quadrant. A prison inmate is a FAILURE – far to the left on the horizontal axis. But one may ascend very high in the FULFILLMENT scale if one had understood that he/she could have done with his or her life something much better. In his books Viktor Frankl does quote from prison inmates’ letters thanking for giving them “new” lives. I am also going to share with you a fascinating story of such an inmate.

Where do you think, Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft Corporation, should be placed on this graph? You are right: on the upper-right quadrant, where the lawyer is, but probably much farther in the SUCCESS direction. Apart from being a founder of one of the most powerful software companies that brought about a computer revolution, and one of the richest people in the world, he is also a philanthropist of a colossal scale. Together with his wife, he has founded Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledges to donate over $30 billion for improving education and health-care throughout the world. Oprah Winfrey has opened two schools in South Africa, and became an inspiration for South African girls. I could list here names of hundreds of rich people who work to make the world better.

Thousands of people who are not as rich but are giving their time and financial support to humanitarian causes also proudly occupy the right upper quadrant. To mention only athletes: Tim Taboo, a football star, who believes that there are things bigger then football. He is an active promoter of home schooling for athletes. Lance Armstrong, a record-breaking winner of Tour de France, is the founder of the Lance Armstrong Foundation whose mission is to fight cancer. He is also one of the founders of Athletes for Hope, the foundation that helps underprivileged youths achieve success. Another founder is Mia Hamm, a former American women’s soccer star. There are dozens of star athletes who work for this foundation.

Nobody forces those people to give their time and their hard earned money for helping people they don’t know personally. It is an inner call, something they could not live without.

• Do you know other “successful” people who are also in that upper right quadrant? Who are your favorite sport and music celebrities? Where would you place them on this plane? Where would you place your girl/boy friend? A someone you believe is a “loser?” And, most importantly: Where would you place yourself. You can think about your life as a whole, but it might be easier to consider just one aspect of your life and where it belongs on the plane. Here is the empty diagram. Please fill it.

Thus far I have not yet mentioned a huge crowd of people who proudly occupy the two upper quadrants. All the scientists and engineers are there. Those, who write books that help you better understand yourself, are there. Those who study, who want to learn, to acquire knowledge, are there. Those who like their jobs and do the work well are there. Those who raise a family where people love and support each other are there.

• Could you give examples of people who are kind and loving; who love their work and try to make it creative? Who is your role model? Is he or she among these people?

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Participating in any volunteer work catapults a person right into the upper quadrants. Thousands upon thousands of volunteers, who, in the 2008 election, made it possible for both presidential candidates to launch their campaigns, are there: some to the left, some to the right, but very high in the FULFILLMENT/MEANING area.

• Did you do any volunteer work? Did you ever feel proud of being a volunteer?

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To think of it, all those people you and I just mentioned add something to the world, create something good that makes the world better. It may not be a work bringing significant achievements that the people will remember; just being kind, compassionate and generous – with the highest generosity being generosity of the heart – is a sure way to be in those two upper quadrants. Because, even though some of those people have not achieved success as most people see it, yet they make the world kinder, more compassionate, more humane. There is no universal scale of fulfillment. Fulfillment is an individual, and often intimate quality, having nothing to do with “grandness” of the work that brought it about. And it brings about a meaning, possibly THE meaning – both into seemingly insignificant every day deals, and one's whole life.

Now I want to share with you a fascinating story about a prison inmate who has found a new meaning in his life.

A good friend of mine, an art teacher at a New York City high school, told me this story, which, in turn, had been told her by her friend, a professor of a New York City college.

This small liberal college had decided to “adopt” a prison. College professors volunteer their time and give inmates lectures and talk with them about literature, science and art. That art professor teaches classes where inmates learn how to draw and paint, discuss each other’s work and learn about the great artists of the past.

 

Finding a New Meaning

 

An inmate has painted three pictures, a so-called “triptych.” On the pictures there are portraits of the same man. On the first picture the man sits in a bleak dirty room, with a syringe and an empty bottle on a windowsill. His eyes are sewn up. Yes, sewn by stitches! On the second picture, in the same room, one can now see on the windowsill a vase with a flower and a book. The man’s eyes are opened and filled with tears. On the third picture: a window opened into a garden with blooming trees, a bookshelf with books, and a wide-eyed happy face.

• What do you think was the meaning of those pictures? What did that man want to say?

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This is how I understand it: Those pictures are about a man living in darkness; about the first discovery of the nature’s beauty and the treasures of books, with regret for the years lost; and about the happiness of having discovered our civilization’s treasures.

Those college volunteers are not allowed to ask inmates about their past, but they may talk about future. That man said to his teacher that he had only a few years left in prison, and then he would begin a new life. He wanted to go to college, study art and become an art teacher.

• Where would you put on the two-dimensional plane those two people: the college professor and the inmate?

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I would like to give you another example. Imagine two people: one who has won lots of money in a lottery; the other, as a result of an accident, has become paralyzed. One of them, overnight, has become rich beyond his wildest dreams, and is bursting with happiness.

• When, all of a sudden one gets a lot of money one has a problem: how to spend it. Suppose it is YOU who has won $1 million. What would you do with it? Please think about it for a moment.

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The other person, after having regained consciousness in a hospital, is shocked by having understood that all his dreams will not come true. He is desperate and unhappy. We, healthy people who are able to walk and run and jump and do with our bodies thousands of things (some of them quite stupid) are simply unable to imagine ourselves in that wretched man’s shoes.

A year has passed…

The first person squandered the money: possibly having purchased a fancy car or some luxury items. He does not feel happy; he has returned to “square one” – where he had been before, but now thinking even more persistently about needing more money. Of course, he could have done with his money something good – either for people he loved, or for the unknown people in need for help. But he has not done that. And his life is as gloomy as it had been before that “surge.”

The second person decided that he would not surrender, that he should do something to help other people who, like him, became “unfit” for normal life. Energy returned to him. As a college student, he changed his major to psychology, and, in a few years became a practicing clinical psychologist and a university professor.

• Where do you think these two persons should be placed on the two-dimensional diagram?

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I would place the first man below, in the DESPAIR-SUCCESS quadrant, while the second one joins millions of people who have decided to make a difference, to make the world better.

My second example was a real person. His name was Jerry Long. As a college freshman, he became paralyzed from the chest down after a diving accident. While recovering from the accident, he read Man's Search for Meaning. He wrote Viktor Frankl a letter and they soon became friends and, eventually, colleagues.

Jerry Long continued his education and earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology. He was a recipient of numerous awards and honors, and was an active national and international public speaker. In 1998 he was named the Teacher of the Year here, in the US. His motto was “I broke my neck, but that did not break me.”

In 1997 I met him at the International Viktor Frankl Congress in Dallas, Texas. He passed away in 2002. I am proud to have been his friend – even for a short period of time.

• All those people in the two upper quadrants have something important in common. What is it?

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May be in different words, but you will agree with me that they all have a desire to contribute to something that makes a difference, to make the world better, even if it is just a tiny bit better. Frankl would say that they “have risen above themselves.”

• What do you think that means?

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That is how I see it. If you think about it, what is this lower level that you are rising above? It's not that you're on a higher level than everybody else. It's that you cannot live purely on the level of instincts; that you can choose to think about your life and say “yes” or say “no” to things. You can stand up for what you believe. In other words, you have the ability to be true to yourself and not agree to unthinkingly be pushed along by what others think or what you would do instinctively. On a more philosophical level: a person is put into this world in order to not just exist as he/she is but also to BECOME who he/she can be. This is the true meaning of rising above the purely physical existence that we all have in common with the animals. This is what makes us human. Unfortunately, so many people don't bother to think. But all human beings have the potential to think about their lives and their values!

Let us return to our diagram. The lower two quadrants are gloomy places. People are unhappy there, they are in despair, and no money can help them.

In the lower quadrant SUCCESS-DESPAIR/BOREDOM, to the right, we quite often see Hollywood or sports stars and other celebrities. All those people – and most of them are talented – have climbed to the heights of their professions and fame. And yet… Money thrown to the wind, excessive luxury and… drugs. Again and again do we hear about show-biz celebrities entering alcohol- and drug-rehabs, and deaths from drug over-doze.

• Do you know such people among celebrities? Please give a few names. I don’t feel comfortable to mention names here – some of them may be your favorites.

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• But why do you think they have those symptoms of distress and despair? Why? Could you explain?

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I believe that it is because a human being can be happy only if he or she has a purpose in life directed to bringing good to the world, making the world better? Happiness comes as a by-product of such a life. Those desolates, even very rich, don’t know what it is. They are deep in the existential vacuum, suffocating.

The lower left quadrant, far to the left and deep into DESPAIR/BOREDOM, belongs to what can be called an “underclass.” Drug addicts, criminals: people who have nothing either material or spiritual to live for. Often they don’t love anybody (even themselves) and have nothing to hope for.

Looking around, we can see that across the two lower quadrants there is a well-trodden path from the extreme right to the extreme left. There are so many examples when a successful person whose life is empty, succumbs to alcohol and drugs, and begins quickly moving to the left, and deeper into despair.

You did place yourself on that two-dimensional picture? However, how is this diagram look in general? Is it different than that for adults? I believe it is. As young adults you have your own problems and responsibilities. You are trying to understand the world you live in – too often a hostile world. Too often this process is painful, and there is none out there to help you but your friends, who themselves may need help. Your life experience is not as wide as that of, say, your parents. But it is definitely different – if only because you live in a different time (I would even say, in a different world), and face the problems your parents did not face when they were teenagers.

You have, however, an important advantage – you don’t need to care about your careers yet. Most of you have bank accounts, but you don’t have credit cards yet – the main means of adult enslavement. However, it does not mean that you do not move along the horizontal axis FAILURE – SUCCESS. You do. Though these two categories for you are different than those in the adult world. You want to have friends; you want to be sexy, to be popular: that would mean being on the SUCCESS side. To a girl, to look pretty, have a good figure, are often the important qualities in the competition for SUCCESS. The important qualities for a boy are often to be macho, to be professed in sports, to be popular among girls. The opposite qualities you often see as the signs of FAILURE.

But there are thousands of exceptions, for your WORLD is always changing, sensitive to both your own change and the pressure of the adult world. In my view, however, though it is difficult to define SUCCESS and FAILURE in your world, the DESPAIR/BOREDOM-FULFILLMENT/MEANING plane is seen well. You are free to walk along it, and it is up to you to decide where you want to be.

Like in the adult world, the four quadrants are populated. I am sure that you, much better than I, will find the examples, among your friends and fellow-students, of “typical” representatives of these quadrants. Just a few words of how I see those quadrants. And please excuse me for not being as detailed as before: adults do not know much about your WORLD, and I am not an exception.

Unfortunately, too often people who have achieved “success” (as many of you see it) have sunk to the lower quadrant of despair and boredom. They may be arrogant; they may be bullies. But in no way is it typical.

A most popular girl with all the qualities of a Beauty Pageant Queen may be also elected a class president – because of her other qualities having nothing to do with “lookism.” A boy professed in sports and popular among girls may be active in extra-curricular activity and spend much time helping others. Of course, both these persons occupy the right upper quadrant of FULFILLMENT/MEANING. Their lives are full, MEANING-FULl, they have purpose, they want to make a difference.

• Could you give other examples of girls and boys in your class who are high on the MEANING-FULFILLMENT scale? Do not give their true names.

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How about a girl or a boy who does not have the qualities “necessary” for SUCCESS? However, such a person may study hard (you may even call him or her a “nerd”), have interests and responsibilities in life that fills him or her with satisfaction, and thus be high in the FULFILLMENT area. Most probably, you will not elect such a person as a class president. But all those who occupy the two upper quadrants, whether they are “popular” or not, are of “one blood:” they have risen above themselves, they decided that they wanted to make a difference, and do the world better, even if they will never say that about themselves.

Unfortunately, no matter where you are on the FAILURE-SUCCESS axis, many of you do know what despair is, and boredom is its faithful companion. Being bored throws one down along the DESPAIR/BOREDOM path. You remember those dangerous boredom’s companions: addiction, depression and aggression? As I already mentioned, using drugs – a desire to get high – is a sure symptom of boredom and emptiness of one’s life. In my view, however, often, when teenagers “experiment” with drugs it is an experiment: you want to know what it is that adults like so much. Such experiments may be “cool” – but only to the point when one begins to understand that getting high does not place him or her HIGH as a human being. The danger is not to miss the turning point.

Don’t you think that rising above yourself, as we discussed earlier, would mean that you would pick yourself up and say, “you know, I really don't have to take drugs, I don't have to stoop to this person's level who is screaming at me and scream back, I don't have to be a jerk?”

• Not naming, do you know of somebody who has or had serious drug or alcohol problems? Why, do you think they could not stop?

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The symptoms of DESPAIR among some of your friends believed by you (and by themselves) to be a FAILURE are more serious. Often they are bullied and even physically abused (even by girls). Quite often, feeling lonely and rejected throws them into depression – a severe clinical depression that may need medical help, and often – urgent help. According to medical authorities, among the young people ages 15-24 suicide is the third leading cause of death. However, even if depression is far from causing suicide, these friends of yours need your kindness, understanding. Actually, it is up to each of you to decide what FAILURE is, and whether it is a failure at all, or just something that others believe it is; in this respect, it means to rise above yourself too.

When you find something in your life that you could call a PURPOSE you will never be bored. You will always feel that you don’t have enough time – possibly even for a TV show or a computer game.

As I already mentioned, any volunteer work that you love is a leap upward. Even such a simple thing as walking a shelter dog is rich in meaning: compassion to abandoned animals that may later bring meaning to all your life if you decide to become a veterinarian or dedicate yourself to saving animals. Reading an interesting book or participating in a science, or literature, or theater club, or working on a school website or at a newspaper, or starting or just participating in a charitable foundation – are the powerful sources of fulfillment. And, by the way, this activity does do the world better, because it makes you smarter, kinder, adds knowledge, and helps you to become conscientious citizens. All this is extremely important because 20, or even 15 years from now it would be you, the today’s teenagers, in charge of our society. What will America, or the world be like then? It will depend on you. It will be your responsibility.

Thus far, we have focused on how important it is for a person to do something he or she wants and likes to do irrespective of whether it brings about either material success or popularity. We found compelling examples of people who dedicated themselves to something that makes a difference – and who are inevitably rising above themselves, raising their human potential, and thus making the world better even though they don’t see themselves as important.

But how can we find the right way? What in us, in our lives, helps us to be up to the tasks of achieving SELF-FULFILLMENT?

Each of us is a unique human being. We live in a society and interact with the external world. Through Nature, Books, Music, Art and Culture. in general, this external world affects our personalities, provides opportunities for our self-actualization and allows us to express our uniqueness.

• Could you recall a case or cases when you DID feel you were unique, special – deep inside, in what one could call a soul? When and how was it for the first time? Did you ever want to tell about that experience to a friend you trusted?

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However, our encounters with other people have the most personal and profound effect on our life. These encounters are so important, that sometimes it feels as if life without them would be impossible. One of the most crucial values of encounters with people is responsibility. Frankl writes[2]:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.

Throw away one’s life! What a great metaphor! How do you understand it?

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Remember the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" – spewed by Cain in self-defense when God asked him: “Where is Abel, your brother?” To those who agree with Frankl, there is but one answer to this question: "Yes, I am my brothers’ keeper!"

However, how would you know for whom or for what you should (even must!) or should not (even must not!) be responsible? Again, there is no universal answer. Ask your conscience – your never-sleeping guard. Your conscience may absolve you of responsibility for something you did or did not do. However, sometimes, possibly in many years, it may torture you reminding of that event in a new light. Believe me, I had and sometimes still have that pain. Sometimes it is unbearable, as if it were a physical pain, as if needles were piercing me. To most adults this pain has often something to do with their parents and children. Something that happened many years ago haunts them.

But this is a precious quality of a human being: from time to time feeling guilty, then by some actions making peace with the conscience and going on living. What is important – to never suppress one’s conscience and never mute its voice. And it will always be your helper in checking if the direction of your life is right.

• Did you ever feel that pain – a deep regret for something you had done or said? What, do you think, could be a remedy for that conscience-pain?

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You noticed: I did not give you any “prescriptions” of how to find a meaning: simply because there is none universal, “one size fits all.” However, there is a “tool” that may help you to check the direction you walk. The tool is simple. You should TALK TO YOURSELF. Viktor Frankl called it a Socratic Dialogue. Socrates who lived almost 2500 years ago (469-399BC) was a Greek philosopher and who is believed – in spite of the millennia between us – to be one of the founders of the Western philosophy. He believed that the task of a teacher was not so much as to pour information into students but rather induce their imagination to recover hidden knowledge they already had.

Talking to yourself, you may question your self, your actions, your motives and be honest with yourself about them. This will help your self-discovery, and understanding your uniqueness; you will better see the choices ahead of you; you will better understand your responsibility obligations; and, perhaps the most important: it will help you to better understand what the self-transcendence – reaching beyond your egocentricity towards others – is. And those are most important “guideposts” that may help to find your life’s purpose. Talking to yourself should never stop. I am an elderly man, but I still talk to myself that way, still asking uncomfortable questions that are difficult to answer.

• Did you ever experience this: asking yourself nasty questions – that only you yourself could ask – and attempting to answer them, or, shying away from them?

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I am approaching the end of my long talk. Just one more important issue.

In my view, when one begins to ask oneself that difficult question about a purpose in life, one should first answer an easier question: What is it that I want to be?

Now that you are on the threshold of becoming responsible adults, it is important to begin asking yourself this question seriously. Actually, I don't know of a more important question that someone your age could ask himself/herself.

Most of you would like to go to college. If, before going to college, you have not yet decided what you want to be, you still have about two years to decide on your major. And this time may be too short for such an important decision, for there is a chance that your decision would be wrong. Why not to begin seriously thinking about it now? You have much more time while still in high school.

Some teenagers are lucky because of the Aha! moments that have happened to them. You do know what that Aha! means: when it happens, it suddenly becomes clear to you at once that that was what you wanted to do.

• Could you give examples of Aha! moments in your life?

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Just three my own examples:

A teenage girl was in Florida on vacation with her grandparents, my family’s friends. One morning on a beach, she saw two men carrying back to the sea a huge sea turtle that had been thrown out on the shore. The turtle was heavy, and the girl helped the men to carry it. Aha! The girl fell in love with turtles! (She said later that she had seen its “almost human” eyes!) Since then (and that was two years ago) she has read whatever she could find about sea animals, and now, as a high school senior, she knows that she will be a marine biologist.

My wife, a PhD in electrical engineering, now retired, for twenty years had been one of the leading developers of new high intensity gas discharge lamps with OSRAM Sylvania (you can see those lamps illuminating highways). Before that, in Israel, she had developed a special lamp for treatment of new-born babies with jaundice. However, her life as a future engineer and scientist began as an astounded fifteen-year-old youngster at a physics lecture for high-school students. Then, the lecture was on luminescence—the glowing of gases in electric field. Aha! After the lecture was over she knew: Yes, she would be a lamp scientist! She would create new lamps that would be better and brighter! She devoted all her life to this, and she did make a difference.

I also became a physicist because of just one physics experiment. At a lecture for high-school students, a physics teacher poured liquid mercury into a mold shaped as a hammer head, inserted a wooden handle, and then immersed the mold into liquid nitrogen at temperature of minus 345oF. Mercury froze, and, upon removing the mold, all could see a hammer! Made of mercury? It was a real heavy hammer – the teacher nailed a nail into the blackboard with it!

Such Aha! moments most easily happen at school clubs, when something unusual may capture your imagination. Such clubs are an excellent opportunity to check your gut feelings. And, when you even just begin figuring out what you would like to be in the future, try to learn as much as possible about that profession. Reading about the profession, and about anything related to it could be fascinating and eye opening. Or eye closing, hinting that your decision has been wrong. And that is also important.

***

Let me summarize what I was talking about. Yes life has a purpose – to make a difference in the world, and to find a place in the upper quadrants of our “two-dimensional life.” However for each person the path, the “trajectory” and the destination are different, unique. As an 18th-century religious philosopher Susya put it, "God will not ask me why I was not Moses. He will ask me why I was not Susya."

The way to the upper quadrants is clear. All those whose life aspirations are above acquiring only material things are there. All those who support humanitarian causes, who give their time to volunteer work – no matter in what capacity or how: tutoring, repairing computers, gift-wrapping books in Borders, or doing well the work they love; and who are being kind, compassionate, loving and ready to help others even if the call for help is just barely heard – all these people are proudly taking their place in the upper part of the plane. Even if they haven’t achieved affluence and fame: like the elderly volunteers in yellow and orange vests we can see in every town, stopping traffic so that kids could safely cross roads. Even people at the very bottom of the society, like prison inmates or rehabilitated drug addicts who have found a new purpose in their lives – are there.

When you love your job, it is not only a sure way of achieving SUCCESS and affluence; it will also immediately place you in the right upper quadrant of FULFILLMENT/MEANING. A job that brings about satisfaction will result in making a difference in the world, even if a tiny one. If all the little achievements were added up, the whole world would become different!

Among those people who make a difference bringing GOOD to the world, almost nobody understands their work as fulfilling a God’s Mission.

However, is it important to be always searching for purpose and meaning? Psychologists believe it is. They even claim that if teenagers find nothing to devote themselves to while growing up, then later in life, it can be much more difficult for them to find a motivation that would make their lives fulfilled and happy.

I guess these are the thoughts that I wanted to share with you.

One more pieces of advice:

Please, please, talk to your grandparents. Some of them are quite old, and will soon leave you. Ask them about the past, about their lives. If you don’t talk with them, you will have lost something that is extremely important: a feeling of connection of generations, of belonging to the infinite lifeline of people, beginning in the dim past, and then, with you, extending to the future.

This is, more-or-less what I wanted to tell you. I hope that this collection of thoughts of mine may help you – even if just to begin thinking about yourselves. That would also be my highest reward! You know, if a teacher sees among her students just a few pairs of shining eyes, she experiences a deep FULFILLMENT: she has added something to make the world better.

Thank you for your time.

 

I also have a web site: www.SayNoToBoredom.com. There you can read more about Viktor Frankl, and other interesting things. And please write me at glk.saynotoboredom@gmail.com



[*] Genrich Krasko, 2009

[1] A new research suggests that marihuana use may increase the risk of testicular tumors by 70% (http://www.oncolink.org/resources/article.cfm?c=3&s=8&ss=23&Year=2009&Month=04&id=16156)

[2] In Frankl's time they didn't use the he/she form, so we should excuse him.