When Meaning Collapses

Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

The French existentialist author, Albert Camus, speaks, in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, of the meaninglessness of much of human life.  He describes a man in a phone booth, gesturing and speaking.  You can see him, but you cannot hear what he's saying.  Camus describes this scenario as “mechanical”, a “meaningless pantomime”.  Camus goes on to describe much of human life as mechanical, incomprehensible, meaningless, absurd, even to the point of wondering why we're alive.

Existentialism is a fascinating and complex branch of philosophy, most often associated with the aftermath of World War II and seismic shifts in how people approached life and social institutions. For many adherents to this philosophy, the takeaway is that meaning doesn't reside in anything or anyone around us, but only in what we create and what we do.  That the value of life isn't inherent in culture, society or history, but rather in our experiences.  We create our experiences, therefore whatever meaning we have in life comes out of these experiences.  A logical extension of that is that the more we experience, the more meaningful our life is.  In other words, a meaningful life is more about quantity of experience, rather than type or quality of experience.

Camus' description of the man in the phone booth highlights what I call the “collapse of meaning”.  We go about our day-to-day lives, which are filled with habits and routines, and one day we suddenly wonder what it all means.  Does it mean anything?  What's the point?

To anyone who has ever suffered moderate to major depression, this may sound familiar.  Some of the hallmarks of this type of depression are loss of interest in formerly meaningful things and loss of motivation.  Activities and relationships that were formerly exciting and fulfilling just don't seem to matter much anymore.  When this experience is combined with other signs of depression, e.g., sleep disturbance, marked changes in appetite, loss of libido or sex drive, thoughts of self-harm or suicide, a psychotherapist may choose to treat a patient as suffering from depression and may perhaps recommend a consultation for medication.

In my clinical practice, I also see something similar as people approach mid-life.  They teeter between looking back at their lives and looking at what's ahead.  The question often arises:  What has this all been about, and where do I go from here?  Have all of my plans and aspirations and efforts made a difference?  To me, to anyone else?  These individuals may initially raise questions about depression.  However, a thorough conversation may suggest that they are not depressed in the clinical sense, but are grappling with stage-of-life issues.  It feels as if a rich, dense, three-dimensional world has collapsed into one flat dimension.

Existential psychotherapy is a type of therapy which focuses on four key life issues:  (1) mortality, or confronting the reality that death is inevitable for all of us; (2) isolation, or loneliness, and the realization that each of us is ultimately our own source of validation or self-worth; (3) meaningless of life; and (4) freedom, which may be liberating, but also involves taking responsibility for the life choices we make.

When meeting with a new client and learning his or her life story, it's important, of course, to rule out a depression that requires both medical and psychological treatment.  When that has been done—and that process may take some time—it's reasonable for a therapist to explore the existential issues mentioned above with a client.  The client may be experiencing concerns about retirement, career stagnation, illness, disability, becoming a grandparent, changes in family structure (for example, divorce or death of a loved one), among others.

When exploring existential concerns with a client, it's sometimes helpful to ask a question about “authenticity”.  In other words, who does the client feel he or she truly is at his/her core?  What feels genuine, as opposed to someone else's expectations for us or ideas about how we should live our life?This exploration is a process, a journey, undertaken with the therapist, and may take some time. 

Sometimes it's helpful to ask the question, “When have you felt most alive during your lifetime, so far?”  “What was going on in your life during that time?”  For example, it may have been playing football in high school, doing volunteer work, preparing to go away to college, involvement in a special relationship, etc.  This question can help a client begin to clarify what is authentic in his or her life.

This question may help a client reconnect to a time of life, a set of experiences, when he or she felt vibrant, emotionally alive, optimistic, and valuable as a person.  When a client is able to do this, he or she may be able—with the help of the therapist—to brainstorm about ways to feel energized and connected again.  Some examples might be--for someone who enjoyed playing basketball in high school or college--coaching or assisting with his child's athletic team, or with another local youth league.  A retired teacher who is emotionally struggling may consider substitute teaching or becoming involved in promoting literacy.  Someone who had once dreamed of becoming a veterinarian might consider volunteering at an animal shelter. 

The possibilities are virtually endless.  Finding meaning, purpose, and self-worth in life may require a bit of exploration and guidance by a qualified professional, but it is possible at any age and any stage of life.  

Note:  For those interested in learning more about the history and philosophy of existentialism, an online search is a good starting point.