Viktor Frankl believed that, beyond anything else, human beings crave meaning. We can endure any what, he thought, as long as we have a why. Without a "why," we are simply adrift in the world, and at best find some measure of satisfaction through distraction and entertainment. But that is not living deeply, and a life without felt meaning ultimately leads to neurosis and depression.
I, along with many others, agree with Frankl. I think we desire meaning more than comfort. I think the sense that our actions have real significance is a fundamental need of humanity.
But, if we truly do need some sense of significance, where does it come from?
One option, probably the most popular in modern society, is the idea that meaning is fundamentally a human construct that we have the ability to superimpose on reality. That is, we create our own meaning in the world. We give ourselves a why. It seems to me that without invoking some type of spiritual reality (i.e. God, a meaning-giver, etc.), if we want to hold on to some type of concept of meaning, this is what we are left with.
I've never been satisfied with this idea. To me, it just seems to make meaning arbitrary, and arbitrary meaning, at least in my mind, is just as good as no meaning. Take the following two statements:
"My main purpose in life is to drink soda."
"My main purpose in life is to raise my son well."
If I'm just creating my own meaning in the world, either one of these is equally valid. It's my choice.
But one of these statements intuitively feels more correct. If I had a son and subordinated raising him well to my soda habit, most people would say something is drastically wrong. Most would say that I'd be missing out on a life filled with more meaning (giving my best energies to raising my son), for one with less meaning (drinking soda).
Another way to think about meaning is the idea that it is something we discover. That it is an inherent part of reality, an actual part of the universe that we find. This, it seems to me, gives the concept of meaning some actual weight, some depth. Meaning becomes real and not simply a product of our minds. And I think the only way to leave this idea open as an option is to invoke some type of spiritual worldview.
Frankl was mostly concerned with helping people find meaning in their own lives and circumstances. And that's, mostly, what we need. The abstract question "What's the meaning of life?" is less important than the question "What's my meaning in life?". But, as Frankl seems to say, if there is such a thing as my meaning, it seems that it must be a function of the meaning of life.
Frankl calls this ultimate meaning of life its "super-meaning." For Frankl, the super-meaning will be forever beyond our grasp as finite humans. Our task is not to bear the meaninglessness of life, but to bear the fact that we can't fully understand its ultimate meaning.
"This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning. What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic."
– Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
The idea that there is a "super-meaning" – an Ultimate Meaning of Life – even if we can't fully understand it, seems to allow us to hold that the meanings we find in our own lives are an actual part of reality and not merely a creation of our imaginations.