What’s Your Why?
How to find your guiding light
Let’s face it. It’s a scary world out there. People are losing their homes, and losing their jobs. In fact, unemployment in the U.S. hasn’t been this widespread since 1974.
Think about it: Babies born in 1974 are 35 years old today. Probably married. Probably have a couple of kids. Couple of credit cards. Car payments. Mortgage. Bills.
Thirty-five-year-olds have no frame of reference for what’s going on now. My guess is they figured home values would always go up, as would salaries, bonuses and retirement plans. When up, up, up turns to down, down, down — it’s a frightening, unsettling experience.
Even folks with jobs who pay their mortgages on time are feeling besieged, as if at any minute they could be in trouble, too. We feel powerless. The rug has been pulled out from underneath, or is about to be tugged violently. What’s the purpose of life if you lose everything you’ve worked your whole life to achieve? Where’s the meaning in that?
This week I picked up an old favorite to re-read–Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Dachau, and he writes eloquently about his harrowing experiences in the death camps. It was through unimaginable suffering that Frankl was able to find meaning not only in his life, but to fully understand how others find meaning in theirs.
Frankl suggests that meaning and purpose is derived from having a why. Why live? Why suffer? Why keep putting one foot in front of the other? In the camps, Frankl discovered, survival of the inmates was completely dependent on having a why: “Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why –an aim–for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.”
Frankl says our why is always one of three things: Doing something, loving someone, or rising above yourself by turning tragedy into triumph.
Now, I have to say this. Losing your job is not the same as being in Dachau. Even in 1974, people ultimately found new jobs. Losing your home? Not Auschwitz. But these are certainly tough times. To survive, you have to know your own personal why.
And if you’re stuck, struggling, hurting, depressed… you especially need to get in touch with your why and let it guide your life.
Ask yourself, what’s my reason for being here? Is there something you need to accomplish? Someone whose life you cherish? Is your why to parent your children into independent adulthood? Is it to love and support your spouse? Is it to take this very difficult time — to be willing to lose everything you’ve worked for — and emerge stronger, more confident, and wiser?
All of these are excellent whys. And when you have your why fixed firmly in your mind, you can do more than endure. You can move forward and thrive.