“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
For almost four years, Brett Foley and I talked and wrote together about his experiences as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the challenges he faced when he returned home in 2010. Last October, he and I ran a 50-mile ultramarathon after raising almost $7,000 for The Mission Continues, an amazing non-profit organization that helps post-9/11 veterans transition from the military to civilian life by offering them opportunities to serve with a non-profit in their respective communities.
It was a long road back for Brett, a journey he shared with our hometown during its annual Veterans Day program:
“When I came home from Afghanistan almost three years ago, I thought my most challenging days were behind me. I thought that because I made it home alive that I could do anything. So when things got hard for me again — when I was struggling to deal with the things I had been through in Iraq and Afghanistan — I began to think there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I put the wars behind me? For the five years I was in the Marine Corps, I felt like I was a member of a highly select group. And I was. When I got home, I felt like less than nothing. I had no purpose, no direction. I eventually became so focused on the bad things that had happened to me that I completely forgot about all the good things in my life. I forgot about family and friends and all the people who supported me. I forgot that there were people in my life who wanted to be there for me. At first I couldn’t see any of these people because I was too embarrassed to tell other people that I was struggling. It took me a long time to realize that the things that happened to me in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have to follow me for the rest of my life. If anything, I could take those experiences and learn from them in order to become a better person.
I needed to find a new goal. I needed a new purpose. I realized that I had the skills I needed to have a good life. I realized that even though bad things had happened to me — that didn’t mean I had to have a bad life.”
According to psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, to save ourselves from what he terms an “existential vacuum,” characterized by depression, aggression, and addiction, we must strive to find meaning in our lives.
Frankl knew from his time in the Nazis’ concentration camps that to live is to suffer, but that to survive is to find meaning in the suffering — and in the life that follows.
Every life brings hardship — some more than others, of course. It is in these times of hardship, however, that we may find possibilities for meaningful work and love.
While no one can tell you what your specific purpose in life is, we can look to Frankl’s experiences for insights and direction:
Man Must Have a Sense of Purpose
“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life.”
Frankl kept himself alive by finding his purpose: to suffer well. Life, according to Frankl, ultimately means taking responsibility for finding “the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” Frankl also took it upon himself to keep other prisoners from committing suicide, mostly by helping them develop their own sense of purpose. One fellow inmate, for example, found the courage to live when he realized that his purpose was to survive for his daughter, who was safe in a foreign country.
Man Must Love and Let Himself Be Loved
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”
Frankl discovered that the love for his wife (even though she had already been killed, unbeknownst to him) was an extra source of strength. Frankl wrote, for example, that he could understand “how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”
Man Can Choose How He Reacts to Suffering
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It is this freedom, according to Frankl, that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
This does not mean that we need to delude ourselves into believing that everything, at all times, is “perfect.” Rather, it means we have the ability to choose peace over indignation, joy over sorrow, strength over weakness, and dignity over despair.
Without realizing it at the time, Brett found himself on a similar path to discovery. Like many other veterans who have made sense of their lives and found a renewed sense of strength and purpose, Brett has his own story of that excruciating — yet remarkable — moment when it all turned around.
“It took me a while,” he said, “but eventually I realized that I didn’t need to be in the military to make a difference. I went back to school to become a police officer. I knew my purpose was to help people, and I figured that was the best route for me.”
With that realization, Brett found the courage to talk about his experiences, and in doing so confronted what he hadn’t yet confronted and integrated his past into his new identity. He then shared these stories with his wife, his friends, and his family, which allowed him to reconnect with those he had been forced to disconnect from while he was away.
Lastly, Brett discovered that running could not only help him manage the effects of his post-traumatic stress, but could also be a way to raise money and awareness for an organization that has made it its mission to help veterans who are experiencing the same sorts of struggles he faced.
“A good life,” writes of Eric Greitens, founder of The Mission Continues, “a meaningful life, a life in which we can enjoy the world and live with purpose, can only be built if we do more than live for ourselves.”
In a 2012 survey of 2,453 post-9/11 veterans shows that 44 percent did not feel they were ready to transition to the civilian workforce after they were discharged from the military. Of those, 47 percent felt they needed time to “figure out what to do” with their lives.
Based on the life and work of Viktor Frankl, perhaps the take-away for those struggling to find meaning in their lives is this: Try serving others.
It might surprise you how rewarding it is to know, at the end of each day, that what you’re doing is making the world a better place.