Movie Critiques
Top 20 Problems
Human Condition
What Kind World?
Read for Fun
Home Page
Reference Shelf
Story Ideas
 The Bare Essentials of Meaning

A series of articles about meaning in characterization

Copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

Prelude to meaning

People don't very often read instruction books, so I guess it is just as well that life doesn't come with an instruction book. Yet how often have I heard the cry, "What am I supposed to do?" as if every situation in life had a set of perfect instructions. The same seems to apply to finding meaning for our lives. I doubt that there is any set of perfect instructions that all of us can follow. I think meaning is different for every one of us, and it is up to each of us to find it. So then why am I writing this? I can't tell anyone what the meaning(s) is for their life, but perhaps I can strike a responsive chord that will help people focus enough to find the meaning for their life. This article is for people as well as characterization.

What does this have to do with characterization and plot? Meaning, which determines purpose, is fundamental to motivation. A character that requires great depth (not all do) will be best drawn by a writer who knows the character's theoretical purpose in life.

As a pastor, and as an adult, I became very aware of the deep need for a sense of purpose in the lives of the elderly. I visited people whose mates had died, sometimes twenty years previously, but all they could talk about was their mate. Their purpose in life was tied up in their mate, and without their mate their purpose was gone and life was frozen. But even among the elderly when both are still alive and functioning, there is often that despairing feeling that life is done with them, they have lost their purpose - life has no meaning. All too often, a man retires from work - a job that gave him meaning and purpose - and dies a few months later. His wife follows him in a few short months. When life is done with them, they are done with life.

From an early age, people look for meaning in their lives. The young try to find themselves. At mid-life many men go through a mid-life crisis, quit their jobs, start acting like twenty-year-olds, and try to find what it was they think they were supposed to do with their lives. The elderly...I have already mentioned. And even when people have jobs that others think should be rewarding (people are very thankful when they arrive, and very appreciative of their work), they still find they are misaligned with their purpose. Meaning and purpose are not easy to find.

Removing the confusion factors

To start looking, sometimes it is good to remove all the clutter so we can see. Remove the ego strivings, the stuff we do for security, the thrills, things we do to defeat boredom, all the things in life that we have to do, and especially the religious, folk, and psychological maxims that tell us what we should accept as the meaning of our lives, and then we might be able to see more clearly. In my high school English class, a teacher said that a story must have three things, characters, plot, and setting - the bare bones. I immediately took up the challenge and tried to write a story without those three elements. I painted a bleak and foreboding picture of a room with chairs and marks on the floor that suggested violence or mistreatment. But the story still contained all three elements. The bare essentials - the irreducible minimum - were clear.

How would you remove all the motivational clutter from life so you can see the bare essentials? Prison is a place where most everything important is removed from a person. But prisoners still manage to find a life for themselves, manage to form relationships, do work and activities, explore interests. Some religious people manage to isolate themselves, but they too have some relationships, have meaningful activity, and ascribe their purpose to God. War is a wretched experience. It isolates people from their families for prolonged periods. People are isolated, dehumanized, mistreated by the elements and sometimes as prisoners, and live under threat of death or injury every day. I remember my father speaking of World War II, going from island to island, death marches, weeks in heavy tropical jungles, taking baths in a thimble of water, filling canteens and then finding a dead body in the water, sickness, foot rot, insects and elements, snipers everywhere, injured men, men so weary of the war that they stood up and let the enemy kill them. And then seeing some of the enemy, weak and debilitated, uniforms in rags, isolated for months, nothing to eat but bags of rice. But soldiers still have meaning and purpose: somehow making their nation and the world a better place. I will have to try much harder to remove purpose and meaning.

The unwitting tale of writers

In stories I have read where a main character ends with suicide (tragedy*), writers have instinctively known that the person needs to feel socially isolated, be unloved or feel unlovable, to be unable to love, be unable to feel of any value (purpose), be without a spiritual anchor, and be very troubled (seriously conflicted). It isn't so much that way in real life, but perhaps these writers have given us a key to understanding meaning because they instinctively know how to remove all of meaning. So I think I can create from this a working list from which to start. People find meaning and purpose from the following things:

  • Being part of a social context (even if abstract).
  • Being loved by at least one other (and accepted, friendship) (even if abstract).
  • Loving at least one other (even if abstract).
  • Feeling valued (competent, contributing, accomplishment, respect) (even if abstract).
  • Having a spiritual context (growth).
Both social context and spiritual context establish a meaning framework for life that we would not be able to develop by ourselves. Being without a framework would be like entering a game without knowing the rules. Games are meaningless enough, but without rules are chaos. None of the game would make any sense. I added "abstract" to the above because many people learn the framework, then continue with meaning structures even in situations where they have little or no direct contact and get little or no feedback. So isolating a person from social context and all of these other things would be a good place to study.

(*Tragedy results from a fatal flaw in the character, such as an inherent personality flaw. More modern character flaws are usually drawn as products of their environment. Characters that feel this isolated have a conflict as a fatal flaw that prevents them from linking into any of these factors that give life meaning. Oddly I haven't seen inherent character flaws or guilt as an element in any of these.)

The only situation I can think of where this has happened to many people who have been able to report on their experiences is in concentration camps. 

The Viktor Frankl experience

Viktor Frankl wrote of his experience in Man's Search For Meaning. Frankl is unusual in that he counted it a privilege to suffer. He ultimately realized that it was his opportunity to learn many things and to become a better person. Many others drew the same conclusion. But Frankl was not couching this in overly optimistic religious terms. Frankl didn't count himself as one of those who passed the supreme tests of spiritual accomplishments - no, he seemed to see himself as one of the average people who failed as often as he succeeded. From his experience Frankl created a new psychotherapy, logotherapy, which is meaning therapy. Frankl's experience I think can reveal to us the bare essentials of meaning.

There was very little meaningful about concentration camps. Hitler had decided to create a fair-haired Aryan nation, and there would be no Jews. The Nazis removed everything related to humanity from them that could be removed. People were removed from their homes, separated from family, never to see their communities, jobs, friends, relatives, or loved-ones again, and herded onto railway cars for shipment like cattle. There was typically no room for anyone to even sit down for days at a time. The floor was the bathroom. There was no food. Their life was gone. 

At the concentration camps, the dehumanization became complete. Everyone knew their family was probably killed almost immediately on arrival, in the camp's gas chambers, and their bodies were burned. Those who remained, remained to suffer. Their clothes were removed and they were given the ill-fitting rags of dead prisoners. Their former titles, positions, and education were irrelevant. Food was so scarce that they became mere shadows of their former selves. Frail, sick, mistreated, overworked, underfed, they had no physical or emotional energy, so were chronically depressed. They were made to sleep together on boards with no mattresses, pillows, or even heat. They were not permitted even to use their shoes for pillows. They were regularly beaten for anything that even slightly displeased the inhuman guards. They were forced to walk each day, even in inclement weather, to their work sites - their poor shoes no protection against the freezing weather and mud. Their friends died daily from disease, malnutrition, and abuse. And worst of all, they were made to compete (or steal) with each other for food, medical treatment, or any favor that the rest of us would take for granted if we were ever to fall that low. The gas chambers were not so much feared as they were recognized as an end to suffering and the inevitable destination of each of them. 

What was there to live for? Social context? Gone, meaningless. To love or be loved? Their mates and children were most surely dead, and they were forced to compete with or steal from each other. Feeling valued? They had no value - they had negative value - they would do as they were directed until their bodies were depleted then they would be killed. Spiritual context? Who could have faith in such miserable circumstances - would a just a loving God do this - why not just curse God and die? 

But for many their story did not end in tragedy, and in the camps they somehow managed to affirm and live within a meaning framework in spite of the incredible attempt to remove it from them. They affirmed the bare essentials - the irreducible minimum. What did they find to live for? Frankl found the following:

As the prisoners were forced to move from the world of intentional action where they could be creative and constructive and see the fruits of their labor, to an inner world within themselves, some things became clear to them. With nothing left, Frankl could still know bliss by contemplating his beloved. It is the contemplation of love that can strengthen a person and help them through the most dire of circumstances. Love transcends the physical and finds meaning in the spiritual. Love is the thing that can save you. It was the memory of his wife that brought him comfort and strength. 

The love Frankl had for his wife transcended time - his wife was probably dead. Memories. Yet that love made a tremendous difference. Love is part of how we feel valued and connected as individuals. There are many people in our lives who love us: close family, friends, relatives, and each of them leave their mark. But even the kindness of strangers can be very valuable. The person who helped us change a tire, or helped us in sports, or forgave us for stealing - each person who "loves" us in some way gives us a past, a memory, that helps us feel connected, valued, and loved. At critical times it makes a difference. Even in a concentration camp, there were a few guards who treated them with kindness. The world can never be absolutely evil - absolutely devoid of good people. We all have a past in which there was some love, and we can all find some love in the present.

Frankl and the others began to appreciate beauty. In the barrenness that surrounded them, unable to be creative or express themselves in any way, they were forced into an inner life and they gained a much greater appreciation of beauty - nature, art, music. I think that beauty is not just the result of contrast, but actually shows what life can be, especially in a symbolic way. Beauty seems to have strong elements of organization and comprehensibility, which are necessary to meaning. I think that beauty in some ways symbolizes goodness and gives hope. I think beauty is much more necessary to us than we realize. "Stopping to smell the roses," admiring beauty, I think is fundamental to getting in touch with meaning in our own lives. I think we can see beauty in the smallest things.

Recently I watched a Fleetwood Mac concert, The Dance, that played repeatedly on public television during fundraising. I watched it again and again. It was strangely moving. They wrote songs that were often about their own lives and their own troubles. Music - the upbeat sound of guitars and other instruments, voices raised in You Make Loving Fun, singers excited and smiling, dancing on stage, and years of memories. The words in music are poetry, and poetry touches the soul, and music touches the soul, and visual elements (in this case of people celebrating life) have the strongest impact. I had forgotten they had produced such great music, and so much of it. I said to my wife that it was almost too much good music for one evening. I hope they continue to perform, and inspire others to write and perform. May there never be a day when the music dies. Music and art - beauty - are very powerful elements.

So the first two things Frankl found were nothing that anyone could put their hands on. Links from the past; memory of love which transcends time and can be a path to salvation. Beauty - art, music, poetry - which symbolizes hope in the future.

Marching to their work site in the cold and mud, stumbling in dark over stones in the road, the guards kicked them and struck them with their rifle butts when they didn't march smartly or stumbled. If someone pulled their cap over their ears for warmth too soon, the guards attacked. Daily torture, regular beatings and lashings, death all around, universal apathy toward life and the plight of their fellow man -suffering. Life was suffering. Why not curse God and die? Yet Frankl and many others began to count the suffering a privilege. Not that they were somehow aloof and therefore removed from the experience of it. Pain is pain. And not that they took it any better than any other person. And not that suffering should be glorified or desired. But some began to realize that this was an opportunity to prove themselves. Their character would be better for it. If not then it was for nothing and held no meaning for them.

And then someone would find the opportunity to give away his last crumb of bread to someone less fortunate. Apathy wasn't universal - it was a mask for survival in the face of impending death. Freedom to choose wasn't totally oppressed by the guards, people could still make moral choices. People could even cause a slight diversion to prevent the guards from beating someone to death - at great risk to themselves. Everything could be taken from them but one thing: to choose one's attitude.

Attitude, as I have previously discussed on the page The Human Condition, determines thinking, feelings, and behavior. It was a hard lesson to learn, but ultimately they did have control over what they became, both mentally and spiritually. It is this freedom that makes life meaningful. This found expression through their behavior. Each day, they were presented with moral choices. Each day they could jockey for favor, but at the expense of another person. Each day they could horde food scraps, or share with someone less fortunate. Each day one could comfort the sick, or ignore them. 

It was then that Frankl could see these factors of the human condition in perspective. It was love and beauty that helped give them hope for a future. It was hope for a future, a goal, that kept their attitude alive. For the ones who lost that frail grasp on a future, their grip on their moral and spiritual selves began to deteriorate, spiritual growth ceased with their future, and they fell victim to the denigration of the camp. Dead on the inside, their bodies soon followed.

Frankl points to the unemployed worker and those with serious illnesses as similar examples. (Loss of employment has often been shown to have similar impact to loss of a loved one.) The unemployed worker and the seriously ill are in a temporary situation, like those in concentration camps were. There is no goal, which represents the future, and the suffering is endless. Life holds no promise - it seems as if there is nothing more. One can vegetate. One can turn it into an inner triumph. The choice is always ours. 

But choosing an attitude is only the beginning. Frankl went on to help others understand that it doesn't matter what we expect from life. What matters is what life expects from us. President Kennedy spoke similar words in his memorable speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Life means taking the responsibility to find answers to its problems. Sometimes we search too hard for the meaning, while ignoring what life has given us. To Frankl, this was the meaning of destiny. Read Frankl's book - it is much more compelling than my synopsis of it. 

Frankl, and others, have shown us a barebones framework for meaning. From Frankl's writings, I interpret that meaning is dependent on:

  • Love and memories of love, which can strengthen, comfort, and save you.
  • Beauty in art, music, nature, which represents what is good about life, and symbolizes hope for the future.
  • Attitude about life, which determines how one thinks and acts, and is influenced by symbols of hope.
  • The ability to hold onto hope for a tomorrow, often symbolized by a goal, but often abstract.
  • The potential for spiritual growth (the present and future) are a source of meaning.
  • What is at hand for you to do, both as moral choices, and as activity..
In future articles, ideas of destiny will be scrutinized, as well as meaning-making in narrative psychology, life stories, core values, and transforming meaning. 

Frankl, Victor (1984) Man's Search For Meaning. Washington Square Press, New York.

Other distribution restrictions: None

Return to main page

Page URL: