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Finding Your Why

Viktor Frankl recalls a therapy session he had with a young mother who had lost the will to live. She could no longer see why she should keep going and had attempted to end her own life.

She had had two sons. The younger boy died at the age of eleven. The surviving older boy was severely disabled. Having suffered a debilitating childhood illness, the boy lived out his days in a wheelchair and required constant, close assistance from his mother.

The young woman rejected this fate. This was not the life she had desired for herself or for her older son. So, she attempted a dual suicide: herself and her disabled son.

However, it was her son who stayed her hand. The woman had come to see her life as not worth living. By contrast, the boy experienced his life as deeply meaningful. He could still answer the question, “Why do you keep living?” 

Our answer to the question “why” is where we find the meaning of our life. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche about life’s meaning, and I will paraphrase Nietzsche here. How we live can take any number of forms so long as we know the why.

In his encounter with the woman, Frankl sought to help her find the “why” of her own existence. And what she discovered for her own life is instructive for all who claim to be followers of Jesus. The specific circumstances of her answer are entirely her own. But the general contours of her “why” crystallizes the Way of Jesus.

Frankl asked the woman to imagine that she was eighty years old, at the end of her days, and looking back on this life. In retrospect, he asked her, “What would you say about the life you are living now?”

She said something like this:

I had dreamed of having children. And that dream came true. One of my children died. My other child was wheel-chair bound and, in many ways, helpless. By caring for his physical needs, and by nurturing him spiritually and mentally, I provided for him a full, rich life and helped to make him a better human being. 

In tears, she said that she had come to see how the life she was actually living could be profoundly meaningful. She had found a “why” for her life: seeking the good for her son.

Seeking the good for another person is what we mean by love. Jesus put it this way: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends.” (John 15:13) The specifics of the woman’s strategy for caring for her son are not the point here. Instead, notice that she located life’s meaning in pursuing the well-being of another.

Before going further, I want to acknowledge that there are cases in which care for others slides into codependency. In addition, women in our culture have frequently been expected to suppress and to dismiss the value of their own lives in order to facilitate someone else’s agenda or to gratify their desires. These are distortions of love.

To paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the moral law instructs us to treat all human beings as infinitely valuable in and of themselves. We should never treat a human being as if that person’s value is based on his or her usefulness to us. 

And remember, you’re one of those human beings, too. Treat yourself accordingly and require that others do the same.

Frankl’s patient discovered that, by loving, she could be a life-giver. Paradoxically, she discovered that she would live more fully by pursuing a deeper, richer life for someone else. That is the Way that Jesus modeled. That is the way of eternal life that Jesus urges us to walk in our ordinary lives as his followers.

Luke conveys this message in one of the early passages of The Acts of the Apostles.

After Jesus ascends to heaven, his earthbound followers selected a twelfth apostle to replace Judas. The apostolic job description was simple. This person’s energies would be devoted to witnessing to the resurrection. That’s what apostles do. They witness to the resurrection. That would be the newly minted apostle Matthias’s life-defining mission.

It would be understandable if you came away from this passage in Acts with the impression that being an apostle is one among the many ministries within the Church. In a hierarchical tradition like ours you might even equate the apostle’s role with bishops.

But bishops are not the only apostles among us. On the contrary, bishops serve to remind each and every one of us of our defining essence as Jesus-followers. Witnessing to the resurrection is the mission that gives each of our lives meaning. It’s the “why” that propels us forward.

Witnessing can take various forms. But in our understandably cynical age, words—or at least words alone—have little value. In fact, the passage from Acts that we’re considering points us in a different, and possibly riskier, direction.

The Greek word for “witness” is the the same word from which our word “martyr” is derived. Martyrs are witnesses to the resurrection.

Before you assume that I’m encouraging you to sign up for death by lion in a local stadim, let me be clear what a martyr was. 

What martyrs did with their lives before they were arrested and before they endured grisly executions already pointed to the resurrection. That these people were unwilling to renounce their way of living to avoid pain or to secure more time on the planet underscored the power of the “why” of their lives.

Martyrs loved one another with their hands and feet. They shared what they had so that none went hungry. None suffered for want of clothing or shelter. They did not pursue their own comfort or status, their career success or academic record or sports achievements at the expense of the dignity of the least of their sisters and brothers.

The martyrs understood that to witness to the resurrection is to help others experience life more deeply and richly. That is the “why” that imbued their lives with meaning. It’s an eternal why. A why that overcomes even suffering and death.

Jesus modeled this “why.” The challenge for us is to make it our own. One day at a time.

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