🇬🇧 Notes on Stories and Meaning: with Elif Shafak and Viktor Frankl

Even though in “How To Stay Sane In An Age Of Division” Elif Shafak uses phrases such as “our own truth”, which I believe do a great disservice to public discourse and intellectual life in general (if you have to qualify it, it’s no longer truth. “There is THE truth, and your opinion), this very short essay-book surprisingly emphasizes two of my most important themes: stories and meaning.

She uses great phrasings such as “we are made of stories” and then proceeds to describe contemporary issues with the, albeit broad, term “crisis of meaning”. With the risk of diverging a little from what she probably meant, I would like to take the opportunity to make an ‘extension’ on her views and underline that Shafak is completely right in that our greatest problems stem from the wrongful assigning of meaning, either where it is not due, or in unbalanced quantities. You may view, for example, “first world problems” within the same paradigm of wrongful assignment of meaning.

The essay brings into discussion a vital point for modern society that I wish to bring into full view, and that is “the collective cry of not being heard”. Although the author’s discourse has the same compassionate tone that we are used to from all liberal, progressive-types, I would like to underline that it is possible the exacerbated emphasis we place on opinions, on being heard, on inequality, and on democratizing everything, which is the real endgame of ‘political correctness’, comes from a sort of revenge from the masses against perceived elites, experts, and meritocracy in general. What makes one think one is deserving to be heard in the first place? When was the last time someone used the term “elites” with a positive connotation? Socrates was afraid that democracy will be unable to defend itself from the dilettante masses. Take a look at whoever it is now currently running the country where you read this from before deciding to prove him wrong.

Shafak treats not being able to tell one’s story as a one of the greatest possible atrocities (at least spiritually, or psychologically). She is both right and wrong. In the sense of lack of freedom, I wholly support her exaggeration. However, there are immediate problems that surface if we simply accept this Oprah-esque idea. Not everyone (arguably most people, to be completely honest) has a story worthy of being told. And even if they did, it becomes impossible to hear or validate them all in some sense and/or prevent them from grouping in a very small number of cliches. Again, we need to be very careful with where we bestow meaning.

Also about our power to bestow meaning is Viktor Frankl’s “Yes To Life In Spite Of Everything”. In this antidote to Sartre and existential nihilism, Frankl inverts the traditional view people have of philosophy: what the meaning of life is is not something we should ask of the Universe, but rather something the Universe asks of each of us. Our duty is to answer with our actions, love, and even suffering. Since life therefore will have meaning, and suffering is part of life … well, you get where he’s going with this.


“We are made of stories those that have happened, those that are still happening at this moment in time and those that are shaped purely in our imagination through words, images, dreams and an endless sense of wonder about the world around us and how it works.”
― Elif Shafak, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, p. 8

“Not to be able to tell your story, to be silenced and shut out, therefore, is to be dehumanised. It strikes at your very existence; it makes you question your sanity, the validity of your version of events. It creates a profound, and existential anxiety in us.”
― Elif Shafak, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, p. 8

“Information flows amid our fingers like dry sand. It also gives us the illusion that we know the subject (and if we don’t, we just ‘google’ it) when, in truth, we know so little. Paradoxically, too much information is an obstacle in front of true knowledge.”
― Elif Shafak, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, p. 39

“Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life, it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us we are the ones who are questioned! We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential life questions’.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Yes to Life, p. 28

“Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as: the fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Yes to Life

“And in spite of everything, no human suffering can be compared to
of the nature of anyone else’s because it is part suffering that it is the suffering of a particular person, that it is his or her own suffering that its ‘magnitude’ is dependent solely on the sufferer, that is, on the person; a person’s solitary suffering is just as unique and individual as is every person.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Yes to Life


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