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Bucket Lists & Finding Your 'Why'

One of the most impactful reads of my graduate school experience – not uncommon among student counselors – was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

(Psychiatrist & Philosopher Victor Frankl, 1905-1997)

For those unfamiliar with Frankl’s story, he was a victim of the Nazi regime, sent like so many other Europeans of his generation to the unspeakably brutal conditions of the Nazi death camps – in Frankl’s case, perhaps the most infamously barbaric of them all: Auschwitz.

Enduring a state of life that no human should ever have to bear, Frankl noticed that while many of his fellow victims of the Nazis’ barbarity perished of despair and hopelessness, if not from direct murder by their persecutors, he was able to scrape by with the hope that maybe, just maybe, he might survive this hell on earth to share his story with the world. Once rescued by the Allies, the experience caused him to ponder what enabled him to survive whereas so many others understandably had their spirit broken by the horrific nightmare they endured.

A Psychological ‘Theory of Everything’

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, diverse thinkers in the social sciences and humanities endeavored to answer the question: what is the fundamental driver behind all human activity? In this manner, they attempted to achieve for the social sciences what Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking sought to do for the physical sciences; namely, come up with a ‘theory of everything’ from which all other precepts of their discipline could be explained.

(Psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, who theorized that the primary driver of human motivation was the 'pleasure principle')

For Freud, this fundamental driver of all human activity was the ‘pleasure principle’, especially pleasure of a sexual nature (Freud was indisputably a trailblazer for his time, but a century later, it’s fair to acknowledge that he was also more than a little out-there with some of his theories…) For philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, it was the ‘will to power’, a concept which proved enormously influential in the decades following Nietzsche’s life and played a significant role in inspiring leaders and participants in both of the World Wars that dominated and terrorized the first half of the 20th century.

(Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, theorizer of the 'Will to Power')

For Frankl, contrary to both Freud and Nietzsche, this force was instead the will to meaning – a concept famously immortalized by Frankl with the aphorism, “He who has a why can endure almost any how.” Frankl believed he was able to endure and survive Auschwitz because he had a good answer to himself for the question of why he should keep struggling to survive: he needed to share with the world his concept of the will to meaning and how experiencing it saved him in Auschwitz.

The Power of ‘Why’

‘Why?’ is the most powerful question we can ask ourselves. Failure to have a good answer to it in reference to our own life – “why do I get out of the bed in the morning?” “why do I work so hard?” “why am I living where I’m living and doing what I’m doing?” – is often one of the key factors associated with the struggle of depression.

(Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek)

We must have a ‘why’ motivating our efforts day-in and day-out. Author Simon Sinek similarly emphasizes in the context of the business world how those brands which have a good answer for why they do what they do tend to succeed wildly and memorably, such as Apple, while those which emphasize instead only what they do and how they do it tend to fall by the wayside.

Clarify Your ‘Why’ Through Your Values and Goals

In my work with clients who feel a void of meaning in their life, coming up with a good answer to the question of ‘why?’ is our first task in the work of therapy. Most immediately, clarity on your values – what’s important to you, what qualities you want people to think of when they think of you, and who are some of the most admirable people you’ve known in life and what qualities do you associate with them – goes a long way towards generating a strong sense of why you make the efforts you do in this life, and why it’s well worth your while that you do so.

Complementing and accentuating this emphasis on values is exploration and identification of a clear sense of goals. Ask yourself: if things go as well as they could possibly go over the coming months and years, within the bounds of reality (let’s refrain from talk of lottery winnings or spontaneous development of superhuman powers), what would your life look like? What would be the biggest changes from where you are now, to where you will be then? What needs to be accomplished in order to get you there?

Writing a ‘bucket list’ can go a long way in this regard. This is often a favorite action item for clients I work with in their first few sessions, and it similarly made a profound impact for me in my own life when I wrote one for the first time at the age of 16 (an all-time classic movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman that happened to come out around that same time helped to motivate me. 5 stars, highly recommend).

(Film poster for The Bucket List, © Warner Bros., 2007)

In closing, amid the chaos and hustle-and-bustle of life, it can be easy to put our own sense of meaning and purpose on the backburner and fall into the habit of going through the motions. Do yourself a favor: set aside an hour or two tonight or tomorrow, write a bucket list as well as a statement of your key 4-5 values that you want to live your life by and be remembered by. In doing so, you may find yourself with an easier and more spontaneous answer the next time you find yourself struggling through the trials of life, wondering in reference to all your efforts: “why?”

(Author's Note: My sincere thanks to Fr. John Valdez at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Amarillo, TX, whose homily this past Sunday helped motivate this post)

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