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Meaning and purpose in life are foundational to our existence. Like the other existential concerns about death, responsibility, and isolation, they can have far ranging implications for how we conduct our lives.
Leading a life filled with meaning and purpose can greatly contribute to your level of happiness. But as Victor Frankl points out in The Will to Meaning, happiness is not likely to be found by pursuing it; it must ensue. And it’s most likely to ensue when you make meaning fulfillment your goal. In other words, happiness is an outgrowth of engaging in activities that feel meaningful.
If you were on your death bed reflecting back on life, would you say there was any meaning in the ways you chose to live it? Would you be able to identify the purposes your life had served?
Does Your Life Have Meaning?
If you’re questioning whether your life has meaning, Frankl also advises that rather than search for some broad and abstract “meaning of life,” focus on finding meaning in what you’re doing at any given time. He believes that “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” Yet when that concrete purpose or meaning are missing, and you find yourself forging on in their absence, that’s when a sense of meaninglessness can set in.
Meaninglessness can become a clinical problem even if it doesn’t accompany a significant level of depression or anxiety. Feeling a lack of meaning or purpose in life can often underlie other problems that prompt people to seek psychotherapy.
For instance, due to the somewhat elusive nature of what contributes to a sense of meaninglessness, a client may attribute the lack of spirit and passion in life to more readily identifiable problems. Those commonly blamed are the exhausting demands of work and family, financial pressures, or an unsatisfying relationship. While these concerns also may require attention, meaninglessness as an underlying or central issue can get overlooked.
Take Reggie, for example, who was primarily caught up in a battle with meaninglessness. He admitted to drinking too much and feeling a little depressed. The problem became most evident during the holiday season that preceded our appointment. He had taken some extended time away from the demands of his job so he could be with his wife and children. While he enjoyed their company, his feelings of discontentment became more pronounced, and the extra availability of alcohol around the holidays didn’t help.
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Functioning as a vice president at a large corporation, Reggie shouldered a lot of responsibility. He rarely had the opportunity for the kind of downtime he had just experienced. But when he stepped off the treadmill of work, he became acutely aware that something was missing in his life. After discussing it with his wife, he made a New Year’s resolution to give it attention.
Midlife Crisis? Existential Crisis?
From all outward appearances, you wouldn’t think Reggie’s life was lacking anything. At 45, he was a handsome man in good health. Despite his busy schedule, he found time in the early morning to exercise and stay in shape. He seemed to have a good deal of self-discipline and came across as someone who liked to get right down to business. Shortly after he took his seat in my office, he said he suspected he was going through some kind of midlife crisis. I told him we could certainly keep that in mind and went about doing my assessment.
Reggie was financially successful and had a very full life. He traveled the world for business and pleasure, had a solid marriage, two healthy children, and all the material benefits that money could buy. The only thing missing was that he just wasn’t happy. He felt empty inside.
During my assessment, I asked him if he had any sense of what might be missing. He closed his eyes for a moment and bore down on my question, but he just couldn’t say. All he could add was that his feeling of emptiness had recently grown stronger, and for the first time he felt like he was just going through the motions on his job. In a very disheartened tone, he said he wasn’t sure he even wanted to do it anymore, and he wondered if it would be best to just quit.
As we explored what was going on, I suggested that he not make any major life decisions. I mentioned how it’s frequently the case that when people don’t have full awareness of everything that’s affecting them, they can prematurely leap into something just to make a change. This is especially the case with take-charge individuals who are accustomed to executing action.
If Reggie’s solution to his problem did involve a career change, he was financially well positioned for such a move. He even had the means to retire, if he wished. His considerable investments already assured he would have what he needed for his children’s college tuitions, future weddings, and a well-funded retirement. But when he briefly entertained retirement, he said, “If I quit working, then what would I do with myself?”
For the time being he accepted continuing on with his present position, even if it meant tolerating that sense of meaninglessness. He wasn’t debilitated by it, but just felt that sub-acute ache that there must be more to life.
Having A Midlife Crisis Is Not A Cliché
As we moved into further sessions, I dug a little deeper to investigate if there were other personal issues contributing to the existential vacuum he felt. I explored his thoughts and feelings about his marriage, his role as a father and husband, his childhood, and his relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and co-workers.
In order not to work at cross purposes while I conducted that search, I suggested that Reggie see if he could stop drinking for thirty days. I was concerned that if I activated feelings about what might be contributing to his problem, his drinking might dull the emotional clues they can provide. Furthermore, if he couldn’t stop drinking for that length of time, it would be clinically indicative that the drinking was more of a problem than he realized.
As it turned out, Reggie’s instincts were accurate. He was in a midlife crisis, yet he felt a little embarrassed to be going through something that he considered so cliché. When he made a few comments to that effect, I mentioned that a midlife crisis may have become cliché simply because it’s such a common part of many people’s developmental experience. For those who experience a midlife crisis, they discover that though it may sound like some whiny abstract problem of successful bored people in the world, it is very real.
Meaninglessness In Life Is A "Suffering Of The Soul"
In her book Awakening at Midlife, psychotherapist Kathleen Brehony refers to it as a crisis of awakening. When addressing it, she employs the same metaphor I use throughout this book: “The chrysalis is the crucible for growth of the personality and the emergence of the self. The middle passage is an entranceway into the deepest layers of one’s soul. The growth and transformation that can often occur at this transition is nothing short of remarkable.”
Though Reggie’s problem may seem trivial to some, it does bring about its own kind of suffering. Jung viewed the experience of meaninglessness in life as a “suffering of the soul.” He considered it a kind of illness. Fortunately, Reggie was motivated to use his midlife crisis as a Chrysalis Crisis, and I trusted that his struggle would result in his existential growth.
But even if the feeling of meaninglessness is recognized, it still can be seen as a symptom of other concerns. When that’s the case, it’s assumed that if those problems are fixed, the empty feeling that accompanies meaninglessness will go away.
Individuals might believe that if they find another relationship, move to another area, or make more money, then all will be well. But if their lives are absent of meaning and purpose, when those changes are made that sense of meaninglessness still will prevail.
Often the lack of meaning in life can be most evident when other areas of life are fine. That’s when people will come into therapy and say they should be happy, and are boggled when they’re not.
Whether a sense of meaninglessness in life goes undetected, and its accompanying emptiness and suffering gets misattributed to other concerns, or its absence is recognized as the problem, there are a couple of ways people will deal with it. Some will surrender to it, believing that the absence of meaning is just an inevitable part of living. They may embrace the view of Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher who professed that life is meaningless.
Others will not accept such a dismal view. They may have once felt a sense of meaning in life but have now lost it. They’ll frequently recall an earlier time when they pursued activities that felt purposeful and cite the reasons they got abandoned. They know such a life is possible but don’t know how to get it back.
Finally, there are those who experience a sense of meaninglessness and will admit that they never gave a life of purpose any thought. While they may agree that a meaningful life is ideal, they feel it’s too late for them.
For all these individuals, however, there’s hope.
Meaning In Life Can Be Lost, Changed, or Rediscovered
Erik Erickson revealed in his research that not only can meaning in life be found, but it can be lost, changed, or rediscovered. It’s a fluid process. It’s a lot like how one’s identity can change throughout the life cycle. So even if you never found meaning or purpose in your life, had it once and lost it, or want to fill its void in later years, discovering it just requires summoning your will to make the search.
In order to look in the right places, though, you might want to first ask yourself a few of the following questions:
* Is there any particular meaning behind what I do with my days?
* Is there something I feel passionate about that I wish I were doing?
* Do I feel stuck, empty, bored, or just going through the motions?
* Am I directionless, rudderless, or feel like I’m just meandering through life?
* In my darkest hours, where do I find meaning for carrying on?
* Have I ever considered a purpose for being in my life?
James Hollis, a highly respected Jungian scholar, suggests that when people feel a sense of meaninglessness during that midlife middle passage, they ask themselves this question: “Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played in my life?” I would add that people also ask themselves: Do I wish to continue playing those roles, or are there others I’d like to pursue?
Seeking A More Meaningful and Purposeful Life
If you recognize that you’ve been struggling with meaninglessness and wish to seek a more meaningful and purposeful life, I encourage you make the effort. But that effort begins with an internal search and some additional self-examination. Keep in mind that what you ultimately determine to be meaningful or purposeful will be a very individual decision. It will reflect your priorities and values. Only you can really say what feels right.
Psychotherapist Brehony emphasizes that when we’re going through midlife, another layer of the self is trying to emerge. It takes time, she says. It requires a more feminine approach, a receptiveness that allows for gestation. It’s as if we’re birthing a new self, and you can’t rush a pregnancy.
©2019 by Frank Pasciuti, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved. Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: Rainbow Ridge Books..
Chrysalis Crisis: How Life's Ordeals Can Lead to Personal & Spiritual Transformation
by Frank Pasciuti, Ph.D.
Recovering from a life ordeal―be it the death of a loved one, a divorce, loss of a job, or a serious physical injury or sickness―can sometimes result in personal and spiritual growth. When it does, Dr. Frank Pasciuti calls the transformative experience a "Chrysalis Crisis." If properly managed, these kinds of crises can result in increased physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and moral development. This book offers a model of human development that enables everyone―not just those in crises―to transform their lives, and create for themselves an increased sense of peace, happiness, and well-being. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
FRANK PASCIUTI, PhD. is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified hypnotherapist. He is founder and president of the Associated Clinicians of Virginia, where he provides psychotherapy and organizational development services to individuals and businesses. Dr. Pasciuti is chairman of the Institutional Review Board at The Monroe Institute, and he collaborates on research related to NDEs, psychic phenomena, and the survival of consciousness at the University of Virginia School of Medicine's Division of Perceptual Studies. Visit his website at frankpasciuti.com/