The best line in Viktor Frankl's precious little book "Man's Search for Meaning" is one that he borrowed from Nietzsche: "A person who has a why in life can put up with any how." The myriad minor "hows" of life are of much lesser consequence than the "why." Every person must work out his or her own personal "why." No size fits all.
For me as a supposed expert in living long, when I am asked about my "why" I immediately turn to Grandpa Bortz. Grandpa was a grocer in a small railroad town, Greensburg, Pa., just east of Pittsburg. He was diligent, proper, almost humorless, but very gentle. On our family visits I loved to hang out with him in his many-splendored shop and particularly coveted the glazed doughnuts, which I remember particularly.
But I'm sure I became a nuisance by my insistent curiosity. I was constantly underfoot. Finally Grandpa had had enough of me. "Go make yourself necessary." "Scat." As a young fellow, his admonishment conveyed no deep meaning. But now this advice, "make yourself necessary," is my answer to "why live?" At age 83, being necessary carries immensely more weight than at age 9 or 10.
Being necessary conveys many implications, small and grand. The dimensions of these applications, grandiose or minimal, are not so important as their direction. Being necessary to me means being an energy source, rather than an energy sink.
It means being involved in something beyond self, may be your neighbor's canary, or may be having a conversation with your postman, or being sure to vote. My personal minor "why" is to be a litter fairy, picking up wrappers and plastic bottles on my regular jog. It is my step to be necessary.
Or maybe look at it in a negative way. What if I or you or anybody becomes no longer necessary to any person, organization, or cause? Why get out of bed, no one will miss me? Why live?
Age certainly is no disqualification for being necessary. You can easily make the case that the older you become your experience, skills and wisdom should make you more necessary to society as an elder than as a youngster.
A person without a "why" has no value in nature. Mother Nature has little tolerance for uselessness. Lewis Thomas even wondered whether we have a gene for usefulness. Like all genes by themselves they are inert and inconsequential. But when they are expressed by intent, and they are used the value of the gene is vital.
Being necessary has no expiration date on its label. When I asked my Stanford psychologist friend Albert Bandura when I could stop worrying about being necessary his response was direct, "never."
For more by Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., click here.
For more on aging gracefully, click here.
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