By Samya Verma
Some time in September 2021, I found myself enthralled by Viktor Frankl’s ’46 classic Man’s Search For Meaning. It is a testament to Frankl’s prescience that his question, on what the bestseller status of such a conspicuous title implies for the state of humanity, echoes down the years into the river mouth of the pandemic.
Frankl wrote amidst the desolation of the post World War II years, rebuilding life, and meaning, on the barren soil of the distant past. Having lived through the very worst of what man is capable of doing to man, his words were as much a salve for a collectively-wounded civilizational psyche then as they can be now. Hope is a succulent of muddy waters; it grows out of your broken ways, winding around your cracks like a lining of gold. Your very own Kintsugi.
The lesson to be learned is not that ‘the magnitude of my suffering pales yours by comparison’; a person who drowns in three feet of water is as dead as someone who drowns in seven. Rather, Frankl’s conjecture is a philosophy to guide us through the very worst of our times — the prospect of facing the debris of our pre-pandemic lives and still finding the ‘why’ to thrust ourselves to the surface; or, as Frankl quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any ‘how’”.
I had long held onto a stale breath, turning purple-faced with the unrelatability and chaos of surviving… until I turned the pages of Man’s Search For Meaning. I now realize that love is crucial to anything you do, the most important ingredient of meaning, of survival. You take love out, and education becomes a hustle, a business; you add it in and education becomes knowledge.
The surest decision I ever made in my life was to chase history on a wing and a wish. I just knew that nothing else could appease my soul. But the long jump from school to university ‘broke my back’, so to speak. I laboured through a long period of illness during my higher secondary; come the dream sequence that was my four months at college, even the verdant campus couldn’t quite make up for the pain of the years past. In short, I was plagued by apathy and acute meaninglessness during my college days. The process of waking up, showing up for class and penning papers was almost a mechanical detachment from the emptiness of reality. For someone who had dreamt incessantly of poring over historical tomes in hallowed college classrooms of the country, the shock of having made it was almost too much to bear. Passion slept a fitful sleep, and I lost my ‘will to meaning’.
When I awoke it was dusk, and I, another blind conspirator of the future, ran out into the dark with candles of hope. In Dickinson’s words, “I am [still] out with lanterns, looking for myself.”
Bit by bit, as the long months of the lockdown dragged on, I taught myself the art of hope. Meaning-making is a perpetual process; as long as you take responsibility for your life, each new dawn will find you hopeful and in anticipation of whatever the next 24 hours have in store for you. I tided over a point of crisis in my life by appraising every word that I read, and every verse that I bled, with placid hope.
Slowly, but surely, everything began to seem meaningful once more.
In hindsight, I realize that all through my school years, I was running on autopilot. I was compartmentalizing my studies while focusing on a far-off goal of ‘studying history at a good college’ in order to give meaning to my suffering and to survive the trauma of my schooling from one excruciating day to the next. For years, there was one cautious step after another, one small goal and then the next, in my quest for the biggest Goal of all. You wouldn’t dare misstep at the gallows, would you?
The machine of my life was conspicuously broken, and the damage was only compounding with each new session. Today I ask, just how far was I planning to fly on a wounded wing? Wraggled and drenched, I washed ashore at college, the bitter taste of Nothing in my mouth.
There was no balk on ideas here: everyone spoke a dialect of your soul. Now, when people ask me why I gasp for air while talking incessantly, I tell them that to speak and to be understood is a luxury that makes my lungs gape with relief.
But there was a catch (there’s always a catch). For years there had been a Goal, a Meaning, and now it had ceased to be a potentiality. It had, instead, transmuted into what Frankl calls an ‘actuality’ frozen in my immediate past. I was sitting at the seat of ideas in a sun-soaked history classroom. How would I distract myself from my pain now? With nothing to hold it back, the void, the black hole of my being, grew at an exponential rate. College was loud, vibrant, sunny and summery, a carnival of sorts. But it couldn’t fill the void. Frivolity couldn’t fill it either.
“What next?” For someone who had been compartmentalizing her life for a significant portion of the last seven years, there was no answer, there was no meaning. And the pandemic forced me to live through this meaninglessness, face myself, really take responsibility, and rebuild hope.
For years, there had been one day after another — a short-sighted, tunnel vision-esque focus on surviving from 7:30 AM in the morning to 3:00 PM in the afternoon. And suddenly, the pandemic meant that there was no new day anymore, just the same 24 hours on an endless loop. The pandemic forced me to stop, contemplate, and face the broken machine. To quote the preface of Man’s Search for Meaning, I had to “weave these slender threads of a broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility.”
I have now realized that knowledge, an inexhaustible quest, gives me meaning. I love the mental dynamics involved in the process of learning, the ease with which I understand, the occasional click of ideas, and the intertwining of interdisciplinary knowledge into a conceptual clarity of the world as it really is beneath the veneer of daily life. I stagnated for a while because all my life I was forced to study under the duress of report cards and weekly tests. Thus, the sudden emancipation from a lifelong pressure to excel ‘deformed’ me. As I stumbled beyond boundaries, it took a while but I came right home to books and knowledge, evermore in love with the process. I do not wish to adhere to a herd mentality that would make me hate the process of knowledge acquisition and studying. To me, knowledge is a lamp burning away into the night with no concern for the morning.
I owe a great deal to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning in helping me piece together the emotional turbulence of the past few years into a precious belief: hope floats.
Samya Verma is a final year student of history at Hindu College, DU. She is an aspiring international journalist. She swears by caustic sarcasm, political satire, and dark humor. You can reach out to her at email@example.com.