Search For Purpose And Meaning: A Global Quest

While studying at the University of Puerto Rico in the late 1960s, I jumped at a life-altering opportunity when I learned that Dr. Viktor Frankl had traveled from his home in Austria to offer a series of seminars. Dashing between classes on the hibiscus-laden campus, I paused to scan some ads on a cluttered bulletin board. A hand-written note caught my eye: 

Dr. Viktor Frankl
Author of Man’s Search for Meaning
Presenting a seminar for faculty and graduate
students at UPR today at 4PM

I seized the opportunity to attend that seminar, but little did I know I would walk into such a significant event. I arrived at the door just in time to catch a glimpse of the bespectacled, sprightly Viktor Frankl striding confidently toward the mahogany podium as a palpable hush came over the room. Without hesitation, he began to speak in a serene, resolute voice about his life’s work and the unspeakable suffering he and his loved ones had endured at the hands of the Nazis. His wife, mother, father, brother, sister-in-law and mother-in-law—along with six million Jews and fifteen million others—perished in the concentration camps. 

As I approached the entryway, I sensed a stillness in the seminar room—an almost sacrosanct atmosphere. What riveted my attention that day was his calm demeanor and unwavering conviction that humans are not merely destined to ‘pursue pleasure’ or ‘pursue power.’ Frankl maintained that there is a greater motivating force behind all human behavior and that is the ‘pursuit of meaning.’ Furthermore, he insisted that the motivating elements in life cannot be merely seeking success or even happiness. He unequivocally stated, “these must come as by-products.”
I was a curious and eager graduate student, but I had no idea that Frankl’s message would affect me so profoundly. I was immediately struck by the absolute absence of rancor in his voice. I felt compelled to scribble a few key words on my notepad as I attempted to comprehend how this man could possibly maintain a positive attitude given the magnitude of his personal losses.

Reflecting on his own heart-rending experiences, he unequivocally stated that humans have the capacity to suffer courageously—even to bring good out of unavoidable adversity. He taught that the ability to choose one’s attitude toward any situation is irrevocable.

Viktor Frankl’s words left an imprint on my heart that remains to this day. I clearly recall the moment he exhorted us to “Listen to the person in the street. He or she may be your teacher!”

I felt a distinct resonance with such a powerful message, unlike anything I had ever experienced. As I sat in stunned silence, I jotted another note to myself: Take time. Listen. Who are your real teachers?

From that day forward, I’ve attempted to listen, to learn and to share the wisdom of teachers I encounter along the way. Global health work assignments have taken me to many parts of the world including Africa, Central and South America, Asia, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

I find great teachers in the mostly unlikely situations and locales. From Quechua women of Bolivia to Maori elders in New Zealand to health workers of Kenya to university students in Grenada to spiritual healers of Bali to indigenous midwives in Guatemala to grandmothers raising orphans in Uganda, all—and many more—have been my teachers.

I have repeatedly noted that the people who are the most solidly grounded, regardless of age or circumstances or geography, are meaningfully connected with others. These individuals tend to share some common characteristics: an acceptance of responsibility for their own actions and deeds; flexibility and resilience in the face of change and adversity; and a sense of community—caring for neighbors as well as family.

As I recently concluded a presentation at an international meeting of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Dallas, Texas, a silver-haired man slowly made his way to the podium and offered me a gift—a tiny turtle carved from rose quartz that he carried in a tan leather pouch. He said simply, “I cannot travel far these days so I give these turtles to people who will take them wherever they go in the world. These turtles are making their way around the world slowly but in good time.” He added, “I also gave one to Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he visited Dallas.”

Then this gentleman quietly stated, “I call them Turtles for Peace.”

That precious gift—a Turtle for Peace—reminds me each day that we are called to break from our shells of fear and to birth a more harmonious way of being. We all have dreams and hopes. And yes, we all seek meaning and purpose throughout the lifespan. There is great longing for the peace, justice and dignity that are the birthrights of all. And it is a global quest.

Geri Marr Burdman, PhD a health counseling and gerontology specialist and an international health consultant, is the founder of GeroWise International.