In a mental health study 7948 college students were asked what was important to them. Sixteen percent said “making a lot of money” but 78% responded “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”  If asked, what would you consider to be most important aspect of your life right now?

For the second time I have recently read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a book written not simply to relate his German concentration camp experiences but also to show as a psychiatrist, his professional observations on himself and other incarcerated prisoners.

Thirty years ago I spent almost three hours in the camp at Auschwitz. The evidence of suffering was overwhelming and heart-breaking. That the experience in Auschwitz was horrific is beyond dispute, but how human beings tolerated and survived such suffering and deprivation is virtually inexplicable except for one aspect – they held on to a purpose and meaning for their life.

To constantly be the subject of physical and mental cruelty at the hands of sadistic guards must have been demeaning and demoralizing. Dressed in clothing and shoes left behind from those already “gassed” the clothes were ill-fitting and offered little warmth. The daily ration of food was 10 ounces of bread along with one ladle of watery soup. They quickly became little more than skin and bone. Illness was rampant. Yet work parties were expected to walk miles in sub-zero temperatures and bitterly cold winds before a day of hard labour. When the cold turned to heat they trudged through heavy thick mud and water. With pain in their bodies and blistered feet they received the butt end of the guard’s rifles in their backs, if their walk was slow and their work unsatisfactory.

Icicles hung from the ceiling of their huts where they stood naked daily to be de-liced. They slept eight to ten men across open wooden slats, the only warmth being the closeness of their bodies. One blanket was shared by several men while they used their arms or even a shoe as a pillow. Such were the conditions, but sleep proved a momentary relief from their suffering. Suicide was not uncommon, mostly by throwing oneself on to the electric fence or by hanging. Extra punishment was meted out for various infractions of the rules which included no intervention to stop another prisoner committing suicide.

With his professional mind Frankl took note of his fellow prisoners and the ways they psychologically dealt with their circumstances. It was so easy to sink into depression and despair. He discovered that “those who had a task to fulfil were more apt to survive.”  Those who anticipated their eventual freedom to reunite with their wives and families, were the prisoners who seemingly tolerated the suffering. He concluded it was purpose and meaning which kept men going.

He quotes Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”  For these men the “why” was a wife, a child, a family or even the prospect of freedom. Without such goals their lives became meaningless.

We may not be in a concentration camp but I believe that we still need meaning and purpose to our lives.  We need a reason to get us out of bed in the morning. We need a purpose in life to see beyond the pandemic. It might be family, or a job, completing a project like writing a book, achieving some personal goal or even just planning for a comfortable retirement. What is your motivation? What drives you each day to do what you do?

As for me, there are two or three things in my life which keep me motivated.  Firstly, I care for my wife 24/7 who suffers immensely with Parkinson’s Disease. My goal is to provide the best help and support to ease her suffering, and to give her enjoyment in life in spite of her predicament. When you love someone you want to care for them and display that love in practical ways.

Another aspect of my life which gives meaning is that, as a Christian my purpose is to serve God and in my own small way, to bring glory to Him. Whether that is through private devotion or reaching out to others with kindness, love and respect, all are done with the purpose of honouring God, my heavenly Father. For me that provides a real deep meaning to my life.

I could add to these two important factors in my life, the desire to keep writing, but the first two aspects are enough to motivate me to get up in the morning!