“If we have our own ‘why’ in life, we shall get along with almost any ‘how.’” In his famous Holocaust survival memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl cites this quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. Frankl explains that he did not follow his fellow inmates who took their lives by running into the electric barbed-wire fences because he kept alive the hope of being reunited with his recent bride, Tilly. Unbeknownst to Frankl, there would be no reunion with his beloved. She, along with both of Frankl’s parents, was turned into smoke and ashes in the death camps.
Elaborating on Nietzsche’s wisdom, Frankl writes: “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. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” Take note of Frankl’s “almost.”
Now, in my own fifth act, I look back and shake my head in wonder at how I survived some of my travails, many of them self-inflicted and none of them on the order of what Frankl suffered. But he and Nietzsche were right: when you are slipping into the abyss, purpose is a life raft, one that I clutched. There was, however, an additional something that kept me going in my younger days: I still harbored the bone-deep but unwarranted confidence that, no matter what happened, I had an open field in front of me. I had time.
If having a purpose—be it writing a novel, a bucket list of trips, or seeing your grandchild graduate—is your “why,” what happens when the floor falls out and the realization of all those shiny plans becomes impossible? Suppose, for instance, you have been looking forward to retirement, and two weeks after your office farewell party, you go in for the medical test you have been putting off. You make an appointment with the doctor, watch the clock in the waiting room, and thirty minutes later are called into her office. With a somber countenance and head hung low, she gently informs you that you are approaching your life’s horizon. You can read between her lines. The fact is, with the days left you won’t be able to do much except read or stare at the television during those moments when you are able to shake the death shudder and drag your mind off the mass quickly metastasizing in your brain.