Monday, July 18, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Existential philosophers express a great deal of angst about four different concerns:

  • The knowledge we have that we will all die eventually
  • The freedom to be the author of your own life (as opposed to doing what your society wants you to do)
  • Isolation (the feeling that there is an unbridgeable gulf between ourselves and others, as expressed in the sentiment "you come into this world alone and you die alone"), and
  • The meaning of life.
Irvin Yalom, an influential psychotherapist, believes that these are the four areas of concern most important in the genesis of psychological problems, rather than, as the Freudians believe, biological urges like sex and aggression. 

Irwin Yalom
He thinks that the traditional psychological defense mechanisms are aimed at the avoidance of the anxiety that is created when one ponders these "existential" concerns, rather than anxiety over forbidden impulses. In particular, religion is seen as a form of self-delusion designed to protect one from a sense of meaninglessness in an absurd universe in which everyone eventually dies with no guarantee of an afterlife.

Everyday people, on the other hand, tend to think that worrying about such abstract concerns is the province of crazy intellectuals and bored housewives with too much damn time on their hands.

Not so! Granted, those people who are completely engrossed in just trying to survive do not have much time to think about such things, but most individuals in industrialized country are not completely consumed with finding food and shelter.  And most people seem to feel that their life has meaning, even if they can not precisely define it, so they do not seem to worry about looking for it. 

What they may not realize is that they may only feel that way as long as they do what they believe they are "supposed" to be doing.  There is something comforting about following rules and not having to think too much about what existence is all about. 

Erich Fromm wrote a book called Escape From Freedom that put forth the proposition that people are rather fearful concerning the prospect of complete freedom.  If they can do whatever they please, perhaps they might make an terrible error.

The rules about what one was supposed to do in life used to be much clearer than they are now for the majority of people. Various institutions like schools and churches laid out your options for you, and you went along. Even when you technically "broke" the rules, you were often validated by your friends for having done so.  In a sense, the answer to the question of which rules could be broken in private (though not in public) was actually covertly specified by the rules themselves!

Things have changed. Culture has evolved to our current "post-modern" society where all bets are off, and different value systems compete with one another. One often hears that many different points
Erich Fromm
of view are of equal validity.  Your family itself may be divided over the validity of certain values and societal mandates.

So, every so often, almost everyone is overcome by a sense of doubt about who they are and the choices they have made, as well as an existential sense of the meaninglessness of all of it.  However, because most of us will go to any length to avoid feeling that way - let's call this feeling groundlessness - it usually does not very last long.  And so we think that this feeling cannot be very important.

In therapy, on the other hand, when we try to help patients follow their own muse, so to speak (self actualize), they often find themselves at odds with a set of rules that they had learned in their families of origin.  And when they begin to experiment with breaking those rules, a terrifying sense of groundlessness begins to manifest itself.  The feeling is so distressing that patients may think they are getting worse, and may even start to seriously contemplate suicide. 

The descriptions they give of the feeling in psychotherapy are fascinating.  Yalom discusses something he calls de­familiarization. In the normal course of everyday life, we feel at home in the world; we feel connected. Everything in the world about us - objects, people, roles, values, ideals, symbols, institutions, and even the sense of who we are in relationship to the rest of the world - seems comfortable, fa­miliar, and meaningful.

This meaning is reassuring and provides a sense of belonging, for while it is to some extent personal, it is more primarily collective. We share much of our sense of mean­ing with others within the particular systems in which we operate.

Defamiliarization is a disturbing feeling that all is not well, that the outward appearance of the world disguises the fact that its meaning and purpose are not at all clear. This strange feeling is part of the sense of groundlessness.

To again quote Yalom, we gain a terrifying sense that "everything could be otherwise than it is; that everything we consider fixed, precious, good can suddenly vanish; that there is no solid ground; that we are 'not at home' here or there or anywhere in the world." Life begins to seem absurd and pointless, utterly devoid of significant meaning. Pushing on with one's goals begins to seem like an exercise in futility; what's the point?

All that one holds to be important takes on a cast of silliness and, ultimately, unreality. The sense of unreality brings with it something that is even more unnerving, if that be possible, than the sense of meaninglessness: the aforementioned paralysing doubt. If everything one holds to be gospel is not at all real, then perhaps what I think I know I do not know. And maybe it is just me. Maybe I am wrong, but everyone else is right. Maybe what I feel is invalid; maybe I am a nothing.

One patient described the feeling thus: "I felt my identity disintegrate. My career was in jeopardy. Little flags of doubt about what I was doing led to a depression. I felt like a zero." Another patient described a feeling that she was "neither fish nor fowl." Yet other statements made by patients that indicate groundlessness include the following: "I felt as if I were on a different plane from everyone." "I felt I was overstepping my bounds." "I felt disconnected." "There was a barrier between me and everyone else." Patients may complain of feeling "amorphous" or "undefined and void."

How much more comfortable to go back to following all of the old familiar rules, even if they make you miserable in every other conceivable way. The pull of the family system to go back to the family rules is a very powerful one, both in one's relationships and in one's own mind.

This feeling may be our brain's way of expressing a biological tendency that we have inherited to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our family or ethnic group, or to die for one's country.  This innate tendency, called kin selection, was discussed previously in my post of January 21, Of Hormones and Ethnic Conflict.

Being part of a group and belonging to something that will continue on after we pass away also gives us a modified feeling of immortality that makes death somewhat less frightening.  It eases the sense of ultimate aloneness, and it give our lives meaning.  Plus, we do not have to make the types of decisions that make freedom frightening. In short, it provides answers for us, flawed as they may be, for all four existential concerns.  No wonder psychotherapy with the goal of helping someone self actualize is so difficult.


  1. This is a great article. Any tips on overcoming the fear of living life in an unfamiliar way?

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your question.

    Unfortunately, that's a big question with a lot of "it depends" as answers.

    First, if your whole family is attacking the "new you," invalidating it, and pressuring you to change back, the chances that you will be able to maintain the new lifestyle go way, way down. You may need to find a therapist who knows how to help you deal with them.

    If your family is more accepting, the most important thing to do is remind yourself that your fears are perfectly normal and may in fact be an encouraging sign that you are making some much needed moves towards being your own person.

    The second thing to do is remind yourself that your fears and anxiety WILL diminish as you keep at it, and will eventually disappear entirely. When you're experiencing the fears, they seem like they will go on forever, but I can assure you they do not.