Embrace Life’s Limitations to Unlock Life’s Promise


In 1944, a 39 year-old Austrian man named Victor Frankl and his wife Tilly were processed into the Auschwitz concentration camp. He spent approximately 18 months in the shackles of the Nazis being shuttled from one camp to another, before being liberated by American soldiers. Frankl survived the Holocaust, but his wife, mother, and brother did not. 

What is remarkable is that, despite suffering such great trauma, Frankl went on to become one of the most important and influential neurologists and psychiatrists of the twentieth century. In fact, it was the experience of spending time in captivity, experiencing suffering and deprivation, and watching some prisoners transcend their circumstances while others succumbed to them, that set Frankl on a path to explore life’s meaning and develop a renowned technique called “logotherapy” to help those in need overcome difficulty. Frankl’s big insight, which surfaced at his lowest moment, was gained by observing the resilience of humanity, and teaching others how to find meaning in life even in the harshest of conditions.

Find Meaning through Limitations

Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” The search for meaning, Frankl believed, is the primary motivational factor of humans.

Frankl, of course, is not the first to explore life’s Big Question: Why are we here? For thousands of years, religious and secular scholars have attempted to answer this question. As Frankl observed, “Religion is the ultimate search for meaning.” The search for meaning in a world full of hardship is the thread that has bound philosophical study for thousands of years.

Despite thousands of years of study from scholars, historians, and philosophers–from Buddha to Frankl–none of these existential questions have clear answers. The lack of clarity is what leads us to keep searching, reading, writing, and thinking about both the most ancient and enduring question: What is the purpose of life?

Is it enlightenment? Should we strive for self-actualization? Are we here to serve others? Is there no purpose? Are we just passing through?

We’ll likely never know the answer—indeed, what is likely is that the answer is unknowable. Frankl noted that finding the “ultimate meaning” of life “necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man.” But, as Frankl observed, the struggle to make sense of it all is what makes life meaningful. Sigmund Freud believed that humans are motivated by their desire for pleasure. Frankl and others disagreed with Freud—they believe that life’s purpose is derived not from life’s bounty, but rather from its limitations.

Discover Purpose in the Struggle

On the one hand, this seems like a gloomy outlook on life, because limitations lead to the type of pain and suffering that Buddha described as the most enduring of human conditions. Because of limitations—in terms of health, happiness, relationships, and basic needs—humans suffer, at times intolerably.

On the other hand, limitations make life’s purpose worth fighting for. We find meaning in the struggle, not in spite of it. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” In other words, the darker the darkness we experience, the brighter the light on the other side of it. We are “meant” to struggle, because it’s what leads us to learn and grow. Self awareness of our own limitations is what calls us to help others. Because we struggle, we come to appreciate that others do, too. We learn to teach, and more importantly empathize with, others who face tough odds. If our limitations aren’t as severe as those of others, or if we’ve been fortunate enough to overcome them, then we’re called to service. 

“The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.” — Helen Keller

Turn Lemons into Lemonade

A life without struggle feels empty. It’s an existence bereft of meaning, and driven by self interest rather than selflessness. Frankl observed that as societies increase their material comforts, the mental and emotional states of members of those societies tend to deteriorate. Frankl coined the term “existential vacuum,” which he described as “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaningless,” to describe this condition. 

If we define ourselves by what we have, and not by who we are and what we do, then we become trapped by our limitations, not set free by them. Stoic philosopher Epictetus counseled to, “Live so that our happiness depends as little as possible on external causes.” To the extent that we suffer hardship, Epictetus urged us to look back and find the positives and make use of what happened. According to Epictetus: “Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths.”

Viktor Frankl, in his seminal book Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote that, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

A Happy Life

Cognizance of limitations is what drives us to seek out new experiences. There is a concept in psychology called the “mere exposure effect” that biases us toward familiarity. It’s a survival mechanism built into us as a result of our evolutionary past. Our ancestors were more likely to survive if they approached people and engaged in experiences that they perceived as non-life threatening, so they stuck with what they knew. Mere survival is far less a concern in our modern world, but we still tend toward familiarity. It’s what gets us stuck in the rut of routine, especially as we get older. 

By recognizing these limitations, however, we can break free of them and pursue new and novel experiences that lead to a rich and rewarding life. In a previous post we discussed the importance of First Moments, which provide the fuel for an interesting and happy life. If we recognize our tendencies toward the familiar, we then have the power to pursue the extraordinary.

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” — John Gardner

Understanding and appreciating limitations is an important component of a happy life. It’s important to dream big, but equally important to find as much contentment in the pursuit of dreams as you do in the realization of them. Things rarely go as planned, so if you get too caught up in your vision of what an idyllic life should look like, you’ll often find yourself trapped in a sticky web of unrealistically high expectations. In other words, you need to learn to love the process of life—which is full of struggles and marked by obstacles—as much as you love dreaming up ideas about what an ideal life might look like. Happiness is found in life’s journey, not necessarily in its destination.


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Jay Harrington