Filling in the Spaces: Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

by Barbara Dowds

The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick…By asking this question, one is merely admitting to a store of unsatisfied libido. Freud.

One’s life is meaningful only to the extent that one’s personal narrative … retains its power over one, only to the extent that it resists deconstruction.

Julian Young.

if there is a sin against life, it lies perhaps less in despairing of it than in hoping for another life, and evading the implacable grandeur of the one we have. Camus.

Abstract

The existential issue of meaninglessness is analysed here and illustrated with excerpts from a case-study. Identity formation and identity crisis are examined and the four existential dimensions of self: the physical, social, psychological and spiritual are noted. While some meaning can be obtained from each of the dimensions, it is on the spiritual plain that ultimate meaning resides. A variety of secular models of spirituality are discussed, including those of the philosopher of religion, Mel Thompson, the existential psychotherapist, Emmy van Deurzen and the historian of human consciousness, Morris Berman. None believe in an external god and all agree that riches of awe, beauty and profound significance can be found in our relationship to the world. Thompson believes that we project meaning onto the world during the process of identity formation and van Deurzen describes how we can locate meaning by becoming aware of our deepest motivations and values. Berman argues that our embodied connection with a secular/sacred immediacy (imminent spirituality) got buried with the rise of sedentary civilisation, but that since this connection is innate, it can be retrieved. All hold out hope for those of us who are not fortunate enough to have been graced with experience of the transcendent divine. The philosopher, Simon Critchley, on the other hand offers us the most challenging solution: accept the meaninglessness of life, and celebrate your acceptance as a worthy achievement.

The Empty Void Inside

Carol, the client, head drooping, breathes out with the statement ‘I’m so bored’. Silence. ‘Nothing has meaning’. Silence. ‘There’s just a great empty void inside’. Silence. Tania, the therapist feels helpless. Here is another onslaught of this cry for meaning that alternates with Carol’s struggles in negotiating the difficulties of human relationship and her desperation that she may die before she starts to live. She is only 40 but ‘you never know the day nor the hour’, as Carol points out in her more self-mocking moments.

For Tania, Carol is somewhat reminiscent of Winnicott’s tragic patient who ‘has come near the end of a long analysis to the beginning of her life. She contains no true experience, she has no past. She starts with fifty years of wasted life ….’ (Winnicott, 1990:148). Unlike Winnicott’s patient, Carol has not had to dismantle a False Self. She has got by in life since her teens by throwing herself titbits of challenges which keep her distracted for a while until the next period where she is coasting free. She then realises that nothing is holding her aloft and crashes back to earth and that familiar despair. Tania feels caught between different approaches, but CBT homework has been impatiently received as an insult, psychoanalytic interpretations ‘explain’ by blaming mother, but fail to fill the hole. With the increasing number of ‘Carols’ she is seeing in her practice and her own considerable existential angst, Tania knows that there is a major cultural element of modernity here that must be addressed.

A recent book on the problem of happiness argues that our contemporary culture has deepened our cravings and heightened our delusions of importance as individuals (Foley, 2010). While this may be true, it isn’t helpful. In the late 19th century, Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead and recognised the distress that results from such a loss of meaning and direction. He declared that mankind must take over the helm, that we must follow the body, since the soul or self are mere expressions of the body. The secret of being at one with oneself is to heed the body’s demands. However, much of our trouble as human beings comes from misinterpretation of the body’s feelings and desires. (van Deurzen-Smith, 1997).

Unlike Nietzsche, Carol didn’t set out to become an Übermensch, she doesn’t glory in freedom and autonomy. She feels she needs them like the air she breathes, but also needs what Nietzsche despised: human contact and a meaning that stretches beyond her own narcissistic demands. Having lived her recent life round therapists, she has been introduced to the works of Carl Jung, Brian Thorne, Richard Moss, Andrew Harvey, Christina Grof. She has been immensely inspired by all of them, but while they temporarily fill the hole of her longing, she has had no personal experiences such as they describe. She has not been graced with experiences of the divine.

Carol has a history of putting huge energy into building up her life – careers, homes, relationships – and then, as soon as they are well established, she panics at the loss of freedom, at the boredom, and works just as hard to dismantle them. She feels that her life doesn’t amount to anything. On her deathbed, she will look back at a collection of jigsaw pieces that do not fit together. The only people – if any – who attend her funeral will be those she happens to be in contact with at that time. There will be no family (she has no children) and she finds it very difficult to maintain previous connections who once meant so much.

What then can Tania offer Carol? Certainly, a peer relationship (to a fellow sufferer as Schopenhauer called his fellow bipeds in one of his more benign moments) would be a start as they chart these waters that are unknown to both. Then what? Perhaps an examination of what constitutes identity, motivation, meaning and value.

Formation of the Self

Sartre declared that ‘existence precedes essence’, that the essence of who we become is formed by our living. Winnicott, on the other hand implied that the self was a solid entity that could be thwarted in its development by faulty mirroring. In practice, there is probably truth in both stances, if we view the bud of Winnicott’s True self as our genetic endowment and womb experience. This bud then interacts with its environment, including our experience of being parented, along with later adult living to form a more-or-less stable adult essence. However that essence continues to change, albeit at a slower rate.

Daniel Dennett (cited in Thompson, 2009: 86) argues that the self is a fiction we use to make sense of the world; it is a ‘narrative centre of gravity’. From the moment of birth (and probably from conception), identity formation is an interactive process. We are born with a given genetic makeup and from a certain womb experience that will influence our temperament, our metabolism and physical and mental strengths and weaknesses. We are also born into a particular environment that will provide certain stimuli and not others. From the moment of birth, we reach out and explore our environment, including the other people in it, and they reach out to us. We are not merely passive recipients of experience; we seek out what we need. As the philosopher of religion, Mel Thompson says: ‘From birth we are aware of ourselves as experiencing subjects, and of the world gradually taking shape around us. After the first few months we know the world is there outside ourselves, and yet we also make it our own ….. as it takes on significance and value for us’(Thompson, 2009:83). We create a ‘map that contains what the universe itself does not: value, meaning, significance’ (Thompson, 2009:82). Our special moments and changes such as a new job or house, the people we meet, the books we read, the music we hear, the challenges our bodies encounter, love, death, loss and success all serve to redefine the self. ‘You are the feedback that your senses receive from your brain; you are the interaction between brain and senses’ (Thompson, 2009:86-87).

Some of that identity will be conscious and a large part unconscious; identity changes moment by moment, and at the same time I can say that I am the same person I was in distant childhood. That is only true insofar as I have not lost the childhood self, but I have gained a great deal in addition since then that has been partly contingent, partly selected and partly shaped by that childhood self. Each new experience becomes infused with meaning and value as it acquires personal significance. Memory confers identity. A particular musty scent is laden with feeling as it evokes Carol’s childhood visits to her grandmother’s farmhouse; all those greater or lesser Proustian moments reinforce or refine or remind us who we are.

Identity Crisis

How is it that we become alienated from our selves, so that, like Carol, we become bored or empty or filled with despair?

False Identity

Sometimes, we opt for a package deal in life instead of struggling to make our own meaning. Instead of following our own authentic principles and values, we join a fundamentalist religious or political movement or even a career path where none of the beliefs may be examined or questioned. This amounts to accepting a fixed role instead of starting out from who/where we are, so that we trade in authenticity and integrity for security, holding and a false community – false in that the members do not actually espouse the values they pretend to.

Rigid Identity

Some of us become fixed in our self-concept or other security. We may define ourselves rigidly according to our career or our children or a political or religious affiliation, or according to a childhood experience – a trauma or a paradise lost – or a phobia, or a better future. It doesn’t really matter what the attachment is; if it is narrow and rigid and comes to dominate all other points on our personal map, it will freeze our life experience.

Commitment

In making the decisions that define who we are, we have – according to Simone de Beauvoir – moral obligations to the rest of society (Thompson, 2009:63). If we choose to be integrated into a way of life that conforms with society, we make commitments. If we over-commit, we exclude conflicting views and become personally repressed, neurotic and fanatic or totalitarian in our dealings with others. If on the other hand, we under-commit we end up with a vague identity and a rootless life, unable or unwilling to sustain values or relationships (Thompson, 2009:65). We live for ourselves alone, a narcissistic, empty, meaningless life as described by Frosh (1991).

Carol veers wildly between the temporary over-committed rigid identities which alternate with periods of burnout and non-commitment before grabbing at the next career/house/relationship/hobby that catches her interest and saves her from the void.

Dimensions of Identity

The existential therapist Emmy van Deurzen writes about four dimensions of the human condition: the physical, social, psychological and spiritual. Each is characterised by a key existential concern: death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness respectively (van Deurzen-Smith, 1997; Yalom, 1980). Van Deurzen acknowledges that we can find meaning within each dimension [e.g. through efficacy (physical), relationships (social), identity (psychological)] but that we create ultimate meaning on the spiritual plane through a sense of purpose, from our deepest longings that give us a place in the wider scheme of things. The real challenge for the existential seeker is to become aware of the ideals and beliefs that we all possess. Sartre and Camus believed that we have to invent our own meaning in a world that has no inherent meaning, but for van Deurzen and Yalom, meaning is discovered as much as created.

The Spiritual Hole

Advances in science, particularly evolutionary theory, have made it difficult for us to believe any more in God, the creator. Universal education has dented our ability to project out our power onto institutions of authority like the church. From the late 19th century up to the present-day scandals within the Church, our whole relationship with religion is being challenged. However, the rumours of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Richard Dawkins’ attacks on religion have provoked a backlash from unexpected – often atheist – defenders of the need for spirituality, surprising in a predominantly secular country (UK). David Hay (also in the UK) found that three quarters of people surveyed claimed a variety of spiritual experiences whereas only a tenth of that number attended church (Hay, 2006). The capacity for spiritual experience is partly genetically determined and varies between individuals. Can we assume that Dawkins carries null mutations in the relevant genes?

What do we mean by God? Is it a god within, or without – or between? Thompson does not take seriously the idea of an external god residing somewhere in the universe, claims that this notion would be idolatry in the three major monotheistic religions and expresses surprise that some ‘eminent scientists’ think it worthwhile to argue against such a concept. Rather he suggests that god might be the name given by some people to ‘the most fundamental set of coordinates on their personal map: not a being within their world, but the whole world seen as personal’ (Thompson, 2009:94). In other words, god is the matrix within whom we have our being. He acknowledges that such a god is a human construct, but then, as he says, ‘you and I are also human constructs’: that is, your self and my self do not exist as physical entities. These religious coordinates provide meaning and purpose. ‘We are “at home” wherever we are, if our basic values and interpretations go with us in the form of a “God” who encloses the whole of our map’.

While Thompson’s view is a perfectly satisfactory way of combining an experience of god with scientific rationality, it nonetheless fails to provide much that traditional religion provided. Religious institutions provide moral guidance, shared values, community, ritual, beautiful architecture and music, spiritual leadership and much else that may explain why so many people go along with apparently insane beliefs. I can only suppose that they adhere to the religion despite the beliefs or because they engage with the beliefs as metaphors.

Identity formation in the 21st century is radically incomplete because of our failure to find a way to reconcile Enlightenment rationality with our spiritual needs. The old established religions won’t do and we haven’t yet found a way of replacing them. Only a few fortunate individuals have been blessed with a direct experience of god, so that they can say like Jung: ‘I don’t believe in God. I know there is a God’. Many of the rest of us – like Carol – are howling with spiritual hunger, we stagger without guides through a desert parched of meaning, beauty and direction. When all is possible and all is permitted, how do we choose?

David Hay’s work suggests that occasional spiritual experiences are widespread, but they are often rationalised away by the individual and remain unspoken and unmirrored because of the dominant ideology of secularism. If the individual rejects the established churches because of problems with swallowing a set of unbelievable beliefs, then there is nowhere for them to ground or develop their spirituality.

Motivation and Value

People fortunate enough to have an authentic, integrated spiritual home do not have to struggle with finding their life’s motivation and values. Others may veer from one motivation to another in a largely unconscious way. The humanistic psychologist, Gordon Allport distinguishes six types of people according to what the person lives for:

  1. 1. The theoretical person lives to uncover the truth.
  2. 2. The economic person is oriented towards the utility and monetary value of things.
  3. 3. For the aesthetic person beauty is what matters.
  4. 4. The social person cultivates love for and affinity with other people as life’s highest priority.
  5. 5. The political person is interested in power.
  6. 6. The religious person seeks unity with something that lies beyond the everyday world.

(Taken from Jacobsen, 2005:238-239).

Of course, many or most people are combinations of more than one type and we may vary as to which we emphasise depending on our stage in life.

When Tania showed Carol this list, Carol testily replied:

‘What about the explorer? That’s what I think I am more than anything. ……But, I do have a bit of 1, 3 and 6 as well. You know, I spend far too much time round therapists who all tell me that I would be happier if I learned to relate better.  Yeh, yeh, yeh, please don’t ask me what I mean by “better” there. I’m not a 4. I think I listen too much to others, including authors of books, and not enough to myself. As a child I loved to explore and to be absorbed in nature. And that’s what I love now. And that’s why I keep moving from one thing to another. And, I would like to leave something behind, something that would express me and integrate the threads of my life. And, and, and. I want, I want, I want …..Can you just get me on track? Find the perfect thing for me to do and I will do it, but I cannot hold the space as well. I am drowning in limitless possibility. I read a quote from Heidegger who said of death that it is “the impossibility of further possibility”. I look forward to that moment, but only if I have found my mission and fulfilled it. But, I suspect that I will still be flailing around looking for myself on my deathbed.’

From somewhere, she doesn’t know where, a question comes to Tania: ‘Carol, can you believe in the beauty of your soul?’

Carol erupted: ‘Will you piss off. You are not hearing me. I just want to know how to live my life with conviction. This is about my ego too. I want to leave something substantial behind me, but I have to keep wandering also.’

Tania: ‘And therein lies your conflict. Nomads didn’t create civilisation. Settling down and commitment is required for that. I wonder what you would have to face if you accepted limitation?’

As Yalom reminds us repeatedly in his writing, every decision brings with it the loss of other opportunities. He quotes Schopenhauer: the individual can attain only an infinitely small share of the things that are worth having (Yalom, 2006:227).

Tania thought to herself: I will leave Carol to contemplate that conflict. Depending on what emerges from that I may ask her – in later sessions – to write a mission statement of her life. I may remind her of all she has achieved and then no longer wanted or valued once they were hers.

In the meantime, she was glad of the end of the session. She needed time to re-group after hovering on the edge of Carol’s – and her own – existential despair.

Meaning

People can find some meaning in their achievements and relationships, but for profound and lasting meaning, our lives must be inserted into a wider scheme of things. As van Deurzen-Smith (1997:126) says we must give up the notion of being a favourite child, ‘created and saved by God’, and rise to the challenge of playing a humble role, just a small part of what is. We must stop clutching at rigid dogmas, whether those of religion, science or postmodern deconstructionism, and ‘open ourselves to our spiritual emptiness’ (van Deurzen-Smith, 1997:128). Only then can we marvel at the mysteries of the universe, just as we can only eat with relish when we are hungry.

Likewise, Berman (2000) in his book Wandering God refuses to provide the reader with another belief system to fill our ‘paradigm addiction’. He documents convincingly that the wandering nomad or hunter-gatherer does not need the concept of spirit, that the world in and of itself is full of awe and wonder. In standing still, we obsess about self; in moving, we are aware of the outside world. Berman contrasts this embodied immanent (in-dwelling) spirituality that he believes we possessed for most of our evolutionary history, with transcendent spirituality, which he argues, is a response to the stress of settling in sedentary farming communities. While Tania finds some of Berman’s conclusions overly puritanical, she does recognise that it is enough to journey slowly through nature to find god. And she knows that Carol knows this too. All she needs is a reminder. The greatest experience of her life was walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: ‘the happy lassitude of a day when one was wed to the world’ (Camus, 1979:72). Whatever you take into yourself, that is what you will become.

Part of the problem is our expectations. As Terry Eagleton maintains, ‘it is only because you falsely imagined that the world could be somehow inherently meaningful … that you are so devastated to find that it is not’ (Eagleton, 2007:102). While life does not have a built-in purpose it is not futile. Like Thompson, he believes that ‘meaning is a product of a transaction between us and reality (ibid:123). It is also social: ‘we are woven through by the meanings of others … which provide the matrix within which we come to make sense of ourselves and the world’ (ibid:133).

But something intractable still remains. The philosopher, Simon Critchley (2004) writing while his father is dying, points out our immense difficulty in accepting our limitedness, our finiteness. He faces head-on his ‘religious disappointment’: what he desires, but lacks, is faith in a transcendent god. He is the most radical of the thinkers here. He suggests that meaning in life is a matter of finding meaning in human finitude (ibid:29): ‘The world is all too easily stuffed with meaning and we risk suffocating under the combined weight of competing narratives of redemption’ (ibid:32). By this means, we manically attempt to ignore the inherent problems of nihilism and mortality. He proposes that accepting meaninglessness can itself be an achievement – ‘the achievement of the ordinary or the everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption’ (ibid:32) – and in that respect can constitute meaning.

Epilogue

Carol exhibits two strong, unfulfilled and somewhat opposed drives. One is her ego’s need for achievement and recognition: a project of doing. The other is a spiritual need that involves the transcendence of ego into a state of being. She is pulled up and down the hierarchy of needs.

What about her compulsion towards achievement, which reflects the demands of the social dimension of her existence? Partly, this is about Carol making the wrong comparisons. She constantly belittles herself for not achieving what others of her peers have accomplished, but their motivation in life is different from hers. They are primarily motivated by power, whereas Carol has little interest in power, but does want mirroring. This is something that Tania can provide: mirroring and validation of her struggle for answers. She can remind her that this despair too shall pass; it always has before. In terms of more widespread social recognition, she can engage with Carol on the question of what she might leave behind and what would satisfy her. Carol thinks that she alone is a failure. Who does she imagine has life figured out any better? She can help her to accept that her ‘predicament is not the result of a predetermined destiny, but the result of her own choices’ (Yalom, 1996:342).

At a more spiritual level, Tania may reformulate Carol’s drive to exploration as a broader seeking that encompasses the spiritual as well as the physical or intellectual.

She might challenge Carol to transform her attitude towards questioning or seeking as a state of lack requiring a solution into a stance of accepting this as a state of being – albeit a somewhat turbulent one. This capacity is reminiscent of Keats’ negative capability: to tolerate uncertainty, to live with the not-knowing – and perhaps, ultimately, even to embrace a life/world that has no inherent meaning.

Barbara Dowds, BA, PhD, MIACP, MIAHIP, works in private practice in Greystones and is a tutor in PCI College. She is on the editorial board of Eisteach (the journal of the IACP) and was formerly a university lecturer and researcher in molecular biology.

References

Berman, M. (2000) Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality. New York: SUNY

Camus, A. (1979) Selected Essays and Notebooks. London: Penguin

Critchley, S. (2004) Very Little … Almost Nothing, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge

Eagleton, T. (2007) The Meaning of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Frosh, S. (1991) Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self. London: Macmillan

Foley, M. (2010) The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy. London: Simon & Schuster

Hay, D. (2006) Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit. London: Darton, Longman and Todd

Jacobsen, B. (2005) Values and Beliefs. In: Existential Perspectives on Human Issues. Eds: van Deurzen, E. and Arnold-Baker, C. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Thompson, M. (2009) Me. Stocksfield: Acumen

Van Deurzen-Smith, E. (1997) Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. London: Routledge

Winnicott, D.W. (1990) The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. London: Karnac

Yalom, I. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy. USA: Basic Books

Yalom, I. (1996) Lying on the Couch. New York: Harper Perennial

Yalom, I. (2006) The Schopenhauer Cure. New York: Harper Perennial