I recently finished reading the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor. I don’t know what meaning it has that I’m reading a book about meaning during this pandemic period. I suppose the rising death toll might have something to do with it. I have probably also been thinking more about life since my brother’s death. He died this past August, the morning after my sixtieth birthday.
Shortly after my brother was diagnosed with cancer, we were sitting in his nursing home and he told me, “You don’t need to always be looking for a higher mountain to climb. You can find meaning on flat land, too.” In the months that followed, we traversed a lot of flat land together. There is no land flatter than that of a nursing home. I brought him a strawberry milkshake from McDonalds nearly every day so the flat land of his nursing home wouldn’t feel like a desert. He loved McDonalds towards the end of his life. I sometimes think how hard it would be for both of us if he were in a nursing home now. No milkshakes or Egg McMuffins. No visits from my dog. I am grateful that his life ended when and how it did.
Victor Frankl wrote how we need to find meaning in our unhappiness as well as our happiness, since they are both a part of life. The Buddhists would agree. My college girlfriend’s parents might have disagreed, since they asked her on nearly a daily basis if she was happy. They seemed to think of unhappiness as a dirty diaper. My parents thought of unhappiness more like rain, meaning they didn’t make a big deal about it—just as they didn’t make a big deal about happiness. They were kind of like Buddhist monks minus the robes and the inner peace.
My mom has changed a lot over the years and now makes a really big deal about the happiness and unhappiness of her loved ones. She is ready to celebrate any of her grandchildren at the drop of a hat. She is a good role model for aging and for developing a more joyous spirit. I plan to follow in her footsteps and to continue to develop a more joyous spirit myself. I am pretty sure that the way to do that isn’t to sit around and try to figure out the meaning of life. I recall how my dear friend and writing mentor once told me that life is more a series of multiple-choice questions than an essay exam. Often we make choices without even realizing we’re making them. Four police officers made a choice and now we are all making choices in response to the tragic choice they made. Doing nothing is a choice. I probably wouldn’t be here now if my grandparents made that choice following the Nazi invasion. A meaningful life isn’t just about making choices that benefit you—but also choices that help make the world a better place in some way.