Knowledge of self is essential to human flourishing. In fact, it is lack of knowing one’s self that causes us to act out and seek identity through external means in a desperate effort to define who we are. Aside from merely modeling bad behavior, children engage in deviant behavior because they are searching for significance or meaning.
A girl looking for love through sex and getting pregnant outside of marriage is the behavior of someone not fully aware of who she is. She is searching for meaning and identity in the arms of someone who claims to love her. She is looking for someone to fill the emptiness left by her absent father—emptiness defined by lack of love and self-understanding.
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) believed that at the center of every man’s life is the search for meaning. Not the meaning of life, but the meaning of my life. This is a arduous search, a long desire. Without a sense of self one’s search for meaning can lead to trouble. An inner city gang banger is searching for meaning in all the wrong places and will do much damage to himself and others along the way. In the end he will find nothing to satisfy his long desire. He will, in fact, render his desire impossible to attain until he gets wisdom, if that day ever comes at all. But if at his core he is decent there may be hope. Frankl declared there are only two races of men, the decent and the unprincipled. These two categories trancend all other pretensions to race, color, creed, religion or ethnicity.
If the gang banger is one of the decent and not one of the unprincipled he will quickly be repelled by what the others in his gang expect of him. He will come to realize that his greatest freedom is his freedom to choose good over evil.
For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. The latter is akin to Hemingway’s concept of grace under pressure. Frankl saw it as the one freedom that can never be taken from a decent man; the freedom to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance. Of course, the ease with which one can say it belies how difficult it may be to live it. The search for meaning is fulfilled down a hard road. Suffering is an essential part of a meaningful life.