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Article by Karen Schultz (c): Work as Life’s Meaning and Meaning as Life’s Work
Translated by Gina Schaar. Published in 2005 in Danish. The Danish title: Arbejde som livsmening.

“There have always been people for whom a cause was fused together with their working lives. Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa could serve as examples. Asking such people what their work means to them, or how they think their careers will take shape, would distinguish the work from the cause and from themselves in such an artificial way that there would be no point at all in asking.

This is an analogue to Viktor Frankl’s distinction between self-actualization and self-transcendence.

… [B]eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence. (Frankl 1947/1997, p. 133)

For Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa, work is meaning and is therefore certainly not separate from the person or from an object or project. Self-transcendence seems to be the key word, and ironically enough, work as a theme is not really explicitly interesting.

If we nevertheless take work as a theme, we do so with a view towards the concrete daily life that unfolds in our cultural surroundings. Most of us have a job, we work many hours each day on average, and – perhaps most importantly – some of us attempt to realize ourselves through our work in such a way that it becomes a goal in itself.

And here, we come back to Frankl’s distinction between self-realization and self-transcendence, where the former cannot be a goal in itself, but nevertheless has become one in the modern, Western way of life. Before delving into this discrepancy, it becomes important to explore what is really meant by the concept of self-transcendence.

Interpreted based upon the word itself, it means a state of being beyond the self. To put it in another way, human beings go out into the world, and place themselves in relation to the world, where reality and ‘the beyond’ exist. As Frankl put it:

… the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. (Ibid.)

As human beings, we are therefore not just single, small, closed, self-sufficient systems with our own stores of resources; and this approach actually differs from the one currently espoused by humanistic psychology. The self-transcendent person is connected with the world and his or her existence has its own completely unique meaning. The uniqueness of meaning for each individual human being’s existence arises from this connectedness and not from within the individual. Only in relation to the world does meaning become clear, because it exists in the world, but it varies from one person to the next. This meaning thus does not necessarily have anything to do with work. Meaning can also be found in the private sphere through children and family, young as well as old.

Here, Frankl nails down and argues against a common criticism of existential psychology, that is, the perception that with our freedom and our unique existence, we lack any relation to the world around us. Frankl designates connectedness in particular as being most important, because self-transcendence has to do with finding meaning in life and thereby has to do with the ultimate driving force of human life.

If we follow his idea …”

Read more here …


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