On the meaning of life (warning: no definitive answers given!)
"I was standing in the snow by my car, looking up at the sky, when I realised that meaning had fled my life" - Allen Wheelis, 'The Seeker'
The therapist and novelist Allen Wheelis was known in analysis circles as the Samuel Beckett of psychoanalysis for his bleak but compassionate portrayal of the human condition. One of his earliest works was called ‘The Seeker’ which portrayed the mid-life angst of an analyst who finds himself suddenly trapped in an arid, meaningless existence. My guess about Wheelis’ intention in the novel was that he sought to illustrate his conviction that a world of meaning was a stage show, with its various props (politics, religion, family, even psychoanalysis) as a desperate means to hide the tragic, demoralising truth barely hidden behind the curtain: all our purposes are futile when we face the reality of our own inevitable demise. Death, for Wheelis, puts a full stop at the end of our lives, but perhaps more insidiously, it can also put a question stop at the end of what we most value.
This article will not engage with this perspective on a philosophical level directly, but the stance nevertheless reflects the belief that this viewpoint is probably mistaken (or, if being even more tentative with the claims, it is not conclusive and there are other, more life-promoting ideas to consider). I wish to offer some reflections on how those that have succumbed to the ‘everything is meaningless’ sentiment might construe themselves and the world in ways that are for the betterment of their mental health.
- A lack of meaning is perhaps a sign that you need to reconnect with your original purposes or amend what you are doing in your life. Instead of looking at life itself as meaningless, consider the possibility that specific causes have conspired together to create a compellingly pessimistic vision of your life. Maybe your work no longer has the zest it once possessed, or the intimacy in your relationship has eroded into apathy. This sense of ennui and apathy might be proposing on some level that you need to take again stock of your values, and to try and reinstate them into your life. Apathy thus construed is the sum of small, almost subliminal concessions to what you really care about, and one means of tackling it is to return to your ‘why’ (i.e. your values - why you do what you do). This approach was championed by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, who built a whole system of therapy on Nietzsche’s dictum that we can withstand any how if we have a why.
- A declaration of meaninglessness is sometimes a desperate attempt to reach an answer to seemingly irresolvable inner conflicts. For example, those of a people-pleasing disposition might find themselves caught in a conflict between something they really wish to do (or be) and their wish to keep those they love happy. Rather than find some form of practical resolution, they succumb to hopelessness, which they then take as a sign that there is no solution. If you are mired in a sense of meaninglessness consider the distinct possibility that, as painful as it is, this feeling is a way to avoid resolving that which needs to be resolved. To some extent, pragmatism can be an antidote to the understandable yet nevertheless regrettable temptation to avoid making difficult choices in life.
- The self-taught intellectual Colin Wilson was a lifelong studier of the phenomenon of meaninglessness and how it denied, in his opinion, an intimation of how the world really was. His general thesis was that it is when our lives become dominated by habit and a lack of effort that we succumb to a sense of ennui and meaningless that can be a compelling illusion. Yet, as he often wrote about, this ennui can disappear when we have a ‘peak experience’, and see the world in a more comprehensive and celebratory way. It is heartening to know that as much as a sense of meaninglessness can hit one out of the blue, so can these more benign and potentially transformative experiences. Wilson proposed that to have more peak experiences by design (i.e. those experiences that give us a sense of ‘good news’ about the universe), we can try and break free more from the habitual tendencies of our lives, and do things that challenge us. So, if you are feeling apathetic and asking yourself ‘what’s the point?’, consider the possibility that your life has, strange as it may initially sound, become too comfortable and that you might need to stretch yourself in a beneficial way. Even taking a holiday break from your trials and tribulations can provide a rejoinder to your apathy as it severs, albeit temporarily, your habitual view of your life. A more sustained attack on your apathy will usually require, however, frequent challenges to a life of staid routine.
- The witty and stylist cultural critic Neil Postman once wrote about the neurotic (his own term) as someone who has fallen in love with unanswerable questions. Postman gave examples like ‘why do I always fail?’ and he called them unanswerable, because there was no reliable way of determining how to reply to them, as they were too abstract and thus divorced from observable reality. Questions like ‘why did I fail my advanced calculus exam?’ are capable of an answer, as they specify an identifiable context for your inquiry. Wendell Johnson, writing before Postman, elaborated on the folly of believing too much of what we say when he spoke of how certain words like ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ get treated as some pure ideal essences that are capable of being attained, i.e. success without any modicum of failure when we have only relative success (any masterpiece can be defined not only as a great success, but also one of the lesser failures). Now with regards to our topic, one possible way to look at the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’ is that it is an ill-formed question, as it assumes that there is a single, readily identifiable meaning for our existence. Perhaps our lives are instead not defined so much by one overarching meaning, but a series of relatively distinct meanings that are related to our various emotional investments (e.g. there is a meaning for my job and a meaning for my role as father or mother). Viewed in this fashion, a sense of meaninglessness can be a product of searching in vain for one ‘point’ of life because a series of meanings have collapsed (you might have lost interest in your work and in your relationship). Trying to seek out the ‘point’ of existence from this perspective is only adding to your pain, while also keeping you from addressing your more ‘local’ crises of meaning. [NB: I understand that certain people will find this semantic approach questionable for spiritual and/or philosophical reasons. I offer it only as one way of addressing the issue, as it might be helpful for some individuals].
- Following on from the above, there is an argument to be made that our sense of purposelessness is not so much a product of failing to find the meaning of life, but rather that the meanings in life have become less satisfactory than before thereby forcing one to ask the question about the meaning of it all. The great rationalist philosopher, Brand Blanshard, offered an understanding of the good life (i.e. how we find meaning in our lives without necessary recourse to transcendent meaning) based on naturalistic ethics. He proposed that what fosters the various meanings of our lives is a judicious satisfaction and fulfilment of our desires. This is not, however, a hedonistic philosophy, as Blanshard argued for the role of reason in mediating between our desires and the world, so giving in to impulse was not advised. Furthermore, unlike the hedonists, he did not believe that satisfaction alone was definitive, but fulfilment as well. Given these considerations, when you find yourself overcome by pointlessness, useful questions to ask are ‘how can I make my life more satisfying and fulfilling?’, ‘to what extent has my life become dominated by satisfaction of pleasures at the expense of doing things more fulfilling?’, ‘to what extent has my life become dominated by fulfilment at the expense of enough pleasure?'. The difference between satisfaction and fulfilment is that the former is more a feeling that accompanies satisfaction of a desire, whereas fulfilment is about the achievement of a purpose behind the desire (colloquially understood, ‘something to look back on’). What is important for the balanced life is to get the ratio of satisfaction to fulfilment at a healthy level. For example, the overly conscientious student might be sacrificing to some extent pleasures for too much achievement; likewise, and more obviously, the serial adulterer might be obscuring their underlying loneliness and lack of intimacy through an immersion in pleasures. Both are quite capable of lapsing into despondency.
- Our culture is saturated with advice about how to make it ‘big’, how to find some grand purpose that we rarely realise that there can be a tyranny to the cult of potential. In my view, it is worthwhile to actualise our potentials, but we must counterbalance this with a reasonableness that counsels that it is folly to make the pursuit of success and fulfilment into some compulsive should; i.e. ‘I should always be achieving’; ‘I should always be fulfilling my great purpose’. The pursuit of satisfaction and fulfilment that Blanshard was prescribing was not extrinsically defined, i.e. it wasn’t what we feel we should do, but more about what we want to do and seems reasonable to do. One of the dangers of the discourse of personal success is that it can inflate our pleasures and fulfilment to an extent that makes them hard to achieve; despondency can then quite likely ensue, along with an encroaching sense of ‘what is the point of it all?’ To find some reliable satisfaction and fulfilment in life, it helps to appreciate that life need not always be lived with a capital ‘L’. Sometimes life with a small ‘l’ in its ordinariness can still provide what we need.
I hope that this article helps by offering you some ways to cope with your sense of meaninglessness. However, if you find it too daunting to try and examine your life on your own, it can be most worthwhile to seek out the help of a professional counsellor.
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