In the preface to my edition of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon W Allport tells us that Viktor Frankl used to ask his psychotherapy clients what it was that stopped them from committing suicide.
It’s a question that existential philosopher and bon vivant Albert Camus considered the only serious question in philosophy.
It certainly gets to the nub of the matter. Viktor Frankl believed that much of the mental torment of modernity comes down to struggles with the meaning of our lives.
I’m conflicted. Perhaps part of the existential angst is that we think about these things too much. Nevertheless, I think occasional serious contemplation of this question is an excellent way of focusing the mind on the few allotted hours of life ahead of us.
So: Why don’t I commit suicide? Why don’t I go right now to the window and kill myself?
The first thing I notice is that something rebels. I can’t pin it down immediately, but something inside me objects to the idea. If pushed, I could only express it as the feeling that I quite like living. It’s a fairly mild feeling – it’s not that I LOVE life – but, given the choice, I’d rather continue being alive than end it all, thanks.
This isn’t much of a purpose, however. It’s perfectly pleasant to mildly enjoy living, but it doesn’t give much direction to the passage of days.
So what else is buried down there? What other reasons do I have for not committing suicide? What exactly is it about life that I mildly enjoy?
I think it comes down to precisely three things:
- When I feel connected with other people.
- When I feel connected with nature and the planet.
- When I feel I am growing as a human being.
The first is fairly self-explanatory. Humans are pretty social beings and who doesn’t love to feel loved?
The second is more numinous. I have a strong experience of being a part of nature and if I spend too long estranged from the natural world then I start to feel crap. The planet is holding us in its palm and sometimes it’s nice to walk barefoot on the mountain tops, swim in the ocean depths and remember how small and significant we are.
The third is the most malleable, the most amorphous avenue to discovery of my personal meaning.
Almost anything can contribute to a feeling of growth as a human being. Here are some examples from my life this week:
- Studying psychology
- Taking a 27 minute sauna
- Doing 311 press ups
- Writing a radio sitcom
- Playing the guitar for friends
- Meditating in silence
- Running in the rain
- Reading a book about the Holocaust
- Actually suffering the Holocaust
(Okay so that last one wasn’t me – but Viktor Frankl did say that his ‘horrific’ experience during the Holocaust was deeply meaningful.)
Because the notion of ‘growth’ is so flexible, the most important thing here is attitude. Everything, even the most horrendous experience, is an opportunity for growth. The decisive factor determining whether your experience is positive or negative is not some measure of the objective experience – it’s your own subjective mindset.
This is a classic tenet of Stoicism. In the first century, Epictetus said, ‘People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.’ In the mid-twentieth century, Viktor Frankl lauds the transcendent power of suffering to reveal meaning in our lives.
In the twenty-first century, Stanford Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck argues that we should throw out the ‘fixed’ mindset that is fearful of failure and believes our abilities to be unchangable and adopt a ‘growth’ mindset that is honest about our flaws and failures, but promotes action to address them.
These three thinkers – Frankl, Epictetus and Dweck – are all saying the same thing, in different ways. Everything in life can be turned into a reason for living. Our personal preferences might favour one set of circumstances over another, but ultimately the lesson from history is that humans are infinitely adaptable, and the most adaptable are those who are able to see the potential for growth among abject suffering.
It’s an oddly inspiring message, but I’m still not 100% sure that I’ve exactly pinned down my reasons for not wanting to commit suicide. I should write a list.
NOTE: If you really are seriously considering suicide, then please talk to someone about it before you do anything. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to help us rediscover our purpose in life and all our reasons for living. The Samaritans are good.