Having a Why to Live

By Charlie Bilello

17 Jan 2020

What brings meaning to your life?

There’s no more important question.

But how often do we take the time to sit and actually think about it?

Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years. ‘We’ll focus on it tomorrow; there’s still plenty of time.’ And so the question remains, burning in the subconscious of our souls.

Meanwhile, life goes on, as time waits for no man. It may even seem like having a purpose is not that important after all.

But at some point, we are all tested.

And when that time comes, having a why to live can make all the difference…

It was 1939 in Vienna, the largest city in Austria, which had recently been annexed by Germany. A young doctor by the name of Viktor Frankl had just become head of the Neurology department at the last remaining hospital where Jewish patients could be treated.

He had always been a deep thinker (doctorate in philosophy in addition to a medical degree), publishing articles in medical journals and now working on his first book (“the doctor and the soul”). In spite of the terrible war that had just begun, the future seemed bright.

And then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

It was 1944 and Frankl was on the move again, leaving the Theresienstadt concentration camp where he had witnessed the painful death of his father (starvation/pneumonia). This time, the train was headed for Auschwitz, a place that had become synonymous with some of the worst horrors known to man.

Then the train shunted, obviously nearing a main station. Suddenly, a cry broke out from the ranks of the anxious passengers, ‘There is a sign, Auschwitz!’ Everyone’s heart missed a beat at that moment. Auschwitz – the very name stood for all that was horrible: gas chambers, crematoriums, massacres.”

Separated from his family, he was stripped of everything but his faith, becoming just a “number” in the eyes of his captors.

A man counted only because he had a prison number. One literally became a number: dead or alive – that was unimportant; the life of a “number” was completely irrelevant.”

He wouldn’t know it at the time, but less than 1 in 28 of those poor souls who entered the camp would live to tell about it. Over 1 million would perish.

Frankl was one of the lucky ones, but his pregnant wife, mother, and brother all met a terrible fate.

How did he survive?

A combination of good fortune,

Those who were sent to the left were marched from the station straight to the crematorium … he turned my shoulders very slowly until I faced right, and I moved over to that side.”


The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”

a mindset of gratefulness,

We were grateful for the smallest of mercies.”

a lack of resentment or judgment,

No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

… and an unrelenting will to live to see his wife again.

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood 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 of enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position he can, through loving contemplation of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

At the time, Frankl had no idea of whether his wife was still alive (she was not), but the mere “contemplation of her image” provided a necessary refuge from the nightmare of his circumstances, by letting him “escape into the past.”

This gave his life meaning, which given their precarious physical and mental state, made all the difference.

We looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour us.

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”

Even in the worst of all situations, Frankl found evidence of the goodness of man, and proof of his free will.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.”

Viktor Frankl would pen these indelible words in just 9 days after the war. His book (“Man’s Search For Meaning”) would change the way millions of people viewed their own lives, providing an impetus to explore a meaning that was unique to them.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. 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 – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, from moment to moment.”

It is impossible to fully illustrate the depth of his prose; you must read it firsthand and experience it for yourself.

In doing so, I hope you will reflect on your own life. Each of us has distinctive purpose, which serves as a ballast when we need it most.

While none of us today can relate to the hardships that Viktor Frankl endured, we all suffer in different ways, and having a purpose during such times can help us bear that burden with dignity.

My oldest daughter turns 11 today, which seems surreal, but time marches on. If I could give her just one gift for the future it world be to find a greater purpose in her life.

being 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.”

As for myself, everything changed on this day 11 years ago. And for that, I’ve been given the best gift any man could receive.

What is your purpose, your mission, your calling? What brings joy and meaning to our life?

Take some time to think about it. Don’t put it off till tomorrow. For having a why to live for can make all the difference.

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Neitzsche

About the author

Share this post

Recent posts
The Week in Charts (6/14/24)
The State of the Markets (June 2024)