Free Therapy # 36: Man’s Search for Meaning

In my last blog I shared what I have found to be universally true about the human condition.  We are not always responsible for what happens to us but we are always responsible for how we react.

One of my favorite books that first taught me this was originally published nearly 70 years ago by a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Germany.  It has been in my bookcase in my office for the last 26 years and I am looking at it now.

Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning as a result of his discovery that the inmates who survived the holocaust were often the ones who found meaning and purpose in the midst of one of the most horrific experiences a person could have.  It was their freedom to choose their response to torture that enabled them to survive.

He writes, “The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.”  There is a reason we are here.  It is not random.  And it is up to us to open up to our own precious truth.  Frankl explains that our core values quietly whisper our calling.  If we listen to them, we know what to do.  They don’t control us, however.  They don’t push us forward against our will.  Instead, they seek to pull us toward our purpose.  They draw, coax and persuade.  They entice.

Frankl writes, “There is always freedom involved:  the freedom of man to make his choice between accepting or rejecting an offer, i.e., to fulfill a meaning potentiality or else to forfeit it.”

When I was a teenager, like many of us, I felt this pull.  I could “hear” the universe calling my name.  I slowly began rejecting some of the rigid dogmas we were taught in school and began instead the pursuit of my own life education.

A poster on my wall quoted Hermann Hesse:  “Those who are too lazy and comfortable to think for themselves and be their own judges obey the laws. Others sense their own laws within them.”

From the age of 17-20, I spent as much time as possible on the road, first hitchhiking around my home state of Ohio, then two circular trips to Florida, Virginia and back to Ohio.

My next trip was impulsive.  One boring summer day I convinced my mom to drop me off on the nearest highway heading west (I-70) and the first ride that day was with Bob Rubin who was heading to San Francisco from his home in Vienna, Virginia, where I had lived for five years in the 60s.  Since I had started out with only $15 and quickly spent it all, I reluctantly said goodbye to Bob in the Badlands of South Dakota.  All I had to eat then were a few small bags of corn nuts that I flavored with packets of ketchup I took from a Burger King and I thumbed my way back to Ohio through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

For my 18th birthday, my parents let me skip school for a few days so I could hitchhike in the middle of the cold and snow of January to visit my cousin Jeff in Milwaukee via Chicago.  But my most adventurous experience happened the following year when I postponed college so I could thumb my way through most of Europe and Northern Africa for nearly five months.

One harrowing experience occurred as I was riding a bus from Algeria to Tunisia with what I was about to discover was an expired visa.  I was rudely pulled off the bus and left for hours to ponder my fate as strange, dark men rummaged through my backpack looking for hashish that I fortunately did not possess.

The previous day I had camped with some Canadians with head lice who had just been released after several months in an Algerian prison.  I knew what could happen to me. As I sat there meditating and praying, I refused to give in to despair.

I could tell they were not happy when they finally let me walk away into the deserted Tunisian hills but before I left, I went to each of them and firmly shook their hands.  In my own way, I let them know I bore them no ill will and in fact I loved them and wished them well.

They looked stunned and confused.  I knew they hated me, the longhaired American who they could not bust, but I did not care.  I was free and I have never been more thrilled to be alive than I was at that moment.

I would like to claim I still am that young man but that would be a lie.  Too often I have let others determine my moods.  Too many times I have collapsed in tears as I struggled to deal with some horrible loss.  It seems almost daily that I must cope with fearful, anxious thoughts.  I worry what people think and feel the sting when criticized.

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I am doing the right thing with a particular client and worst of all, I worry about money.

And yet here is what I know, a lesson my brave clients teach me every single day.  We are free.  Regardless of our conditions, we can choose to live.  We can seek solutions.  We can live with hope.  Our minds are like scared children.  They fear the worst and try to convince us the worst will always be.  Don’t believe it.  Instead trust yourself and as one of my rides told me once in Kentucky:  “Keep on keeping on.”

Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Eleanor says:

    Good morning, Doug

    Reading this column was a really good way to start the day. I might have to read it every morning! Thank you for your insights and most of all, your honesty. The courage to be honest is all too rare.

  2. Like you, I did a lot of hitchhiking and catching rides with strangers around California, Europe, and parts of Asia when I was younger. I shudder when I think about it now and definitely don’t have the courage to do it now. And while I felt a certain amount of freedom in my decisions to travel that way, I was mostly scared all the time. Fortunately, nothing (too) bad happened to me but I really like flying now. Although, that can be scary, too…

  3. Avatar Ginny says:

    Going to send your column to a prisoner in WA that I write to each week. I feel it will encourage him to “Keep on keeping on!”

    Life is what we make it. Not brake us, but learn something each day. We are in control for our attitude, not someone else. Just keep praying.

    Thanks!

  4. Avatar Grammy says:

    In my thirties I was given “Dr. Hudson’s Secret Diary”. That shape up how I approached life. I gave it to my neighbor to read and it helped shaped him. Both my kids have read it. Honestly it only helped shape one of my children. Maybe a 100 years old but it stands today in helping to shape your mind.
    The gest of it is, do something special for someone but that person can not tell anyone else that you did it for them. But they need to do something for someone or something else and not tell a sole.
    My kids said that the movie “Pay It Forward” stole the story line. Well almost. In the book it says that the act or gift can not be told. It truly makes your heart happy that you were able to do someone and only you and that person knows this.
    Lots of people make donations, give money to the poor, give food to a food bank, rescue animals, foster parents all noble acts. But the secret is that it stays with you. If you are lucky you will get to see how your gift made the World a better place.

  5. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    I read Frankl’s book years ago and your article helps me realize how much that book influenced me. Thank you for a great article.