Closely related to the Ultimate Concern of death is that of meaning. In the existential sense, meaning (and its fearsome evil twin, meaninglessness), holds the power to steer the thrust of our lives depending on where we believe we find it. Many people never fully reckon with the scope of this vital concern, which can become a serious detriment to their quality of life.
Let’s take a closer look at what is meant by “meaning”.
The Concern of Meaning in Existentialism
On a macro level, the search for the meaning of life is perhaps the oldest human quest there is, and has sparked religious wars, political upheaval, and social crusading in its ambiguous name. On an individual level however, the search for meaning takes on an especially intimate role. It is the central task of every person (motivated by both intrinsic psychological and extrinsic social pressures) to us to carve out a purpose for his life.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of our “thrownness,” meaning that each of us is thrown into a world we do not choose, nor understand, through the act of our birth. Our eyes open to family members we do not know and an environment we did not select. Worse yet, this world comes with no definite structure, no absolute meaning of any kind, and no ultimate scaffolding to support us. It is nonetheless expected that we answer for ourselves what we will make make of this burdensome gift none of us asked for.
The necessity for meaning is partially an inevitable consequence of our natural curiosity and higher reasoning capabilities. Importantly however, it is also socially instilled in us at a very young age. Not long after we learn to read our first sentences do parents and teachers begin to ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And so begins our clumsy search for a purpose in which to anchor our existence; to find its special meaning.
But within this expectation lies a insidious and terrifying danger: there is no special meaning to find. For all the naval gazing we do as we progress through adolescence and early adulthood, no ultimate meaning ever truly surfaces. Instead, man arrives at one simple existential truth: if his life is to have any meaning at all, it is no more or less than the meaning he will ascribe to it.
Accepting that there is no true meaning lying in wait for us to discover leaves one with an empty conclusion: all we have to hold onto is our sense of purpose. There can be no cosmic justification for whatever we point to and call “the meaning of life.” Whether a woman’s meaning is total submission to a benevolent higher power, intrepid devotion to a self-defined career, or hedonistic indulgence in the physical pleasures of the body, is up to her alone. Nothing more than the conviction of her own self-directed reasoning may support it.
Furthermore, no matter what she chooses there will be countless others clamoring for her attention. In the social circles she hangs out in, friends will doubtlessly claim to have “figured it all out”. The movies she watches will glorify characters with exciting life purposes that seem like the ultimate solution. Passionate interest groups will reach out claiming to know better what the true meaning of this existence is really all about.
This is why an inordinate number of clients seek counseling because they are “lost”. They may tell their counselor, “I don’t know what I should do with my life,” or “I’ve never been truly great at anything,” or even, “I know I should take more chances in life, but I just kind of stagnate.” Thus is the difficulty of coming to terms with existential meaning.
What Common Unsuccessful Resolutions of Meaning Look Like
When this concern is the primary reason a client seeks therapy, it is not uncommon to experience that person as lost or confused. To deny one’s responsibility for creating meaning is to surrender a life mandate to the care of another person or the universe at large. The fact remains, however, that there is no treasure chest of perfect meaning to find, and thus he or she will end up frustrated and unsatisfied as the search continues in vane.
- Demands: Believing that only the outside world contains your life’s true meaning can cause you to make huge demands of others that they cannot be expected to consistently meet. One might have the notion that the true meaning of life is to fall in love for example. Setting out to prove that this is indeed his cosmic purpose, he will make unreasonable demands of others to love him as quickly and deeply as he believes they should. This would, after all, grant him the purpose he so desperately seeks. How will he feel when people let him down and these demands are not met? Not well, to say the least.
- Awfulizing Beliefs: Often, people will stumble across what they believe is the ultimate purpose for themselves. They pick up an instrument and decide they were always destined to be a prolific musician, for example. There is a subtle but critical difference between deciding that one will give his life the meaning of music, and believing that one has found their ultimate cosmic calling as a musician. The key lies in what occurs when his pursuits are denied. Because some individuals place their purpose on an impossibly high pedestal, he will naturally tend to awfulize any negative outcome and make himself hopelessly depressed. Because he sincerely believes he is destined to become a great musician, being rejected from a big tour or fired from his band represents a quaking signal that perhaps his ultimate purpose is not as certain as he once believed.
- Irrational “Musts”: Another possibility exists. When an individual believes he has have finally stumbled upon his cosmic purpose, he may cling to it with ardent devotion, even if that very thing makes him miserable. Consider a man who convinces himself that the ultimate meaning of his life is monetary success. He might excitedly begin his career as a salesman only to later discover that he truly detests the work. He is likely to insist no-less that he must continue, as the attainment of his “ultimate calling” hangs in the balance. To give it up and leave would represent not a careful refining of his personal happiness, but the abandonment of that which strives endlessly to find: meaning.
- Other-Depreciation Beliefs: When one believes there is a single Ultimate Meaning to be found, and claims that he has found it, he is likely to depreciate other people who define personal meaning differently. He irrationally demands that they conform to what he believes is our universal purpose. A man who insists that the only meaning in life is to serve God, for example, may rage against his son who chooses to define personal meaning outside the church.
At the same time, to despair over the lack of an ultimate meaning and awfulize the tremendous burden of defining for one’s self a purpose which has no cosmic significance leaves one equally lost and woeful. Thus, a client evincing this attitude could experience the following outcomes:
- Life-depreciation beliefs: When one insists that the life is empty for being devoid of ultimate meaning, he is likely to conclude “what’s the point?” With nothing out there to “discover”, who is he to say what its really all about? In fact, he might quickly quip, it really isn’t “about” anything, so he might as well stall out, stagnate, procrastinate, or despair until death. Life, in this view, is meaningless in a wholly awful sense. Of course, depreciating the value of life is irrational, as we cannot conclude that the lack of an ultimate significance must mean our existence is empty and hopeless. However, in believing this way, we can easily make it so.
- Self-depreciation beliefs: Closely related to life depreciation is the belief that one’s self is insignificant, pointless, and devoid of hope. Despairing at the immense responsibility of creating a meaningful life, one could point to her failures and conclude that she is “no good.” Or she might give up on the endeavor of living altogether. Since there is no ultimate meaning, she is worthless, and there is no good reason to put any effort into creating a good life.
Can the Concern of Meaning Ever be Resolved?
A primary goal of therapy is to take the quest for meaning off its pedestal and deflate the pressure we place on it. The client would cease his endless searching for a purpose external to him, and instead turn his search inward. If no cosmic meaning exists, the best we can do is to maximize the pursuits, behaviors, and activities that bring us happiness and personal satisfaction. We are free to evaluate our behaviors in terms of the happiness payoff they grant us. Rather than barking up the wrong trees, clinging painfully to long-gone dreams, or ambling aimlessly through a depersonalizing fog, we can dispense with the clouds altogether and see clearly which stars shine in our personal skies.
The time spent looking for meaning in life is time not spent creating that meaning and owning it internally. Thus, I regard a successful resolution of this concern as recognizing that it is possible, and indeed worth it, to find one’s own life mission and pursue it without regard to the criticism of non-believers, whosoever they may be.
The great writer Andrew Solomon condenses this idea to a single mantra in his brilliant Ted Talk How the Worst Moments in our Lives Make Us Who We Are. “Forge meaning, build identity,” he repeats over and over. And he is right. Meaning is not something that is given to us one day, but something we build, create, and forge from the experiences we have in life, and our inner reactions to them.
Forge meaning, build identity.