In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells the story that on his first day in a Nazi concentration camp, an older and more experienced prisoner pointed to him and, based on the older prisoner’s experience, said Frankl was the type who wouldn’t survive. Frankl did survive and one way he managed to keep going was to edit, in his head, a manuscript of his the Nazis had destroyed. Earlier, in Vienna, Frankl had noticed that there were lots of young, unemployed men hanging around getting into trouble. He organized volunteer groups to give the men something to accomplish, and most of the trouble stopped. The men still weren’t making money, but having a meaningful activity with which to occupy their time took their minds off the mischief they could be causing and gave them a sense of purpose.
From his work with the young men and into his experiences in the concentration camp, Frankl realized the human need for meaning and purpose, something he termed the “will to meaning”. Other psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, have also documented a human need for purpose in life which is placed among the higher order needs, once such lower concerns as food and shelter have been met. Frankl recognized that people often experienced what he called an existential void which caused them to seek something to give their lives greater meaning. He concluded that if people have a definite reason to live, they can endure any hardship, and noted, during his time in the camp that the prisoners who were able to focus outside themselves, who could convince themselves they had a reason to go on beyond mere survival often fared better than those who couldn’t.
Ironically, the same tendency which allowed the prisoners in concentration camps to survive also fueled those who had created the camps. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf, states that Hitler came to power, not by promising an easy life for his people, but by promising them struggle and sacrifice. Through their struggle, they would build a better Germany, thereby giving them meaning for the hardships they would endure. Through pageantry, spectacle, and overblown rhetoric, Hitler fueled the myth of a Germany which would one day rule the world, and everyday Germans were seduced into believing they were part of something greater than themselves. No matter how mundane their lives were, by accepting this grand vision, they, too, could be heroes. On a much smaller scale, Charles Manson motivated a group of misguided flower children into committing horrible crimes with the belief that they were somehow serving a higher purpose.
Most citizens of the US don’t vote and the reason most often cited is that they believe their votes don’t count. This is a belief that both parties in the US actively work to cultivate because if the constituency realizes they have the power to effect an election, no career politician will be safe. Each side wants their voters to turn out, while discouraging voters who don’t hold their beliefs. Eventually every election turns into a predictable event, since the only people who show up at the polls are the true believers, the base, so to speak. Since the system works for those in charge, there’s no motivation to change. Average citizens watch from the sidelines, convinced they have no control over the process.
When a politician comes along able to tap into that discontent, for better or worse, people often find themselves swept up in the fervor, motivated by a sense they’re part of something more grandiose than their every day experiences. Emotions cancel out logic as people long to fill the void within, and no sacrifice seems too great in order to bring about that sense of destiny. A truly great leader, one motivated by a need to raise up his or her people, knows how to channel that energy into positive change, but all too often, the wrong type of person taps into that need and manipulates it for sinister purposes. History attests to the consequences of following such leaders, in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and even here in the United States. Those who say it can’t happen here fail to see it already has and will again if we’re not vigilant.
There’s an urban legend about a woman who spent years caring for her invalid mother. When her mother died, the woman’s friends convinced her to travel and have some fun, which they felt she had earned. On the first leg of her trip, she stopped in to visit an elderly aunt and, upon finding the aunt in poor health, curtailed her travel plans and started caring for the older woman. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus concludes that despite the grueling and frustrating task Sisyphus must endure, Sisyphus is content because he always knows what the day will bring. He has no reason for hope, therefore he’s never disappointed.
Struggle and sacrifice are part of life and for many, they provide the motivation necessary to envision a brighter future where such hardships will be lessened. Just as hedonistic pursuits often lead to a life devoid of meaning and purpose, though, excessive or unnecessary sacrifice can leave people without a proper gauge by which to judge the demands placed upon them. Seeking a higher purpose is a tendency unique to humans, which has led to many great accomplishments throughout history, but just as often, the need for meaning has led people to follow those whose goals are short-sighted and self-serving. We all have a need to feel part of something greater than ourselves. We should not let this need override our better judgement or allow our good intentions to be diverted by empty promises from those whose intentions are dishonorable.