Let me turn now to a consideration of some psychotherapeutic as well as religious efforts to assuage existence anxiety. Consider first the ultimate concern of meaninglessness.
We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures that have the misfortune to be thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning. One of our major life tasks is to invent a purpose in life sturdy enough to support a life. And then next we have to perform the tricky maneuver of subsequently denying personal authorship of this purpose so as to conclude that we “discovered” it – that it was “out there” waiting for us.
Our ongoing search for substantial purpose in life systems often throws us into a crisis. More individuals seek therapy because of concerns about purpose in life than therapists often realize. Jung, for example, estimated that one third of his patients consulted him for that reason. The complaints take many different forms: for example, “My life has no coherence,” “I have no passion for anything,” “Why am I living? To what end? Surely life must have some deeper significance.” “I feel so empty – watching TV every night makes me feel so pointless, so useless.” “Even now at the age of fifty I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.”
I recently read a beautiful book called “The Listener,” the memoirs of Alan Wheelis, the <st1:place w:st="on">San Francisco psychoanalyst and marvelous lyrical writer. One passage relevant to this discussion has stuck in mind. The author is walking with his dog, Monty:
If then I bend over and pick up a stick, he is instantly before me. The great thing has now happened. He has a mission. It never occurs to him to evaluate the mission. His dedication is solely to its fulfillment. He runs or swims any distance, over or through any obstacle, to get that stick.
And, having got it, he brings it back: for his mission is not simply to get it but to return it. Yet, as he approaches me, he moves more slowly. He wants to give it to me and give closure to his task, yet he hates to have done with his mission, to again be in the position of waiting.
For him as for me, it is necessary to be in the service of something beyond the self. Until I am ready he must wait. He is lucky to have me to throw his stick. I am waiting for God to throw mine. Have been waiting a long time. Who knows when, if ever, he will again turn his attention to me, and allow me, as I allow Monty, my mood of mission?
Why does that passage stay with me? It’s so seductive to think of a preordained concrete assignment for life. Who among us has not had the wish: if only someone would throw me my stick. How reassuring to know that somewhere there exists a true, a real, an ordained, pre-assigned purpose-in-life rather than only the incorporeal, gossamer, invented purpose-in-life which it seems to me inevitably follows from the ultimate vision of our solar system lying in ruins.
The problem of life meaning plagues all self-reflective beings. And, of course, religious revelation which communicates God’s ultimate personal purpose for us is, no matter how difficult, no matter how lengthy, deliciously welcome. How much more comforting is the religious solution to the problem of meaning than the more rational but bleak message sent us by nature, a message that reminds us of our miniscule place in the cosmos and in the great chain of being? I once saw a memorable and jarring cartoon containing several panels, each depicting some species, for example, an earthworm, a fish, a bird, a snake, a cow. In each panel one of these creatures was depicted as chanting the same refrain: “Eat, survive, reproduce. Eat, survive, reproduce.” The last panel depicted a man in Rodin’s “thinker” posture and chanting to himself, “What’s it all about? What’s it all about?” All the other life forms seem to get the picture but we humans just cannot get our minds around it and instead demand and then legislate the existence of some higher purpose or mission.
Most clinical and theoretical explorations into sturdy and satisfying life-purpose projects point to such goals as hedonism, altruism, dedication to a cause, generativity, creativity, self actualization. It seems evident to me that life-purpose projects take on a deeper, more powerful significance if they are self-transcendent – that is, directed to something or someone outside themselves – the love of a cause, the creative process, the love of others or a divine essence.
The precocious success of today’s young hi-tech millionaires has often generated a life crisis that is instructive about the limitations of non-self-transcendent life meaning systems. These individuals begin their careers with clear vision – they are intent on making it: earning heaps of money, living the good life, receiving the respect of colleagues, retiring early. And an unprecedented number of young people in their thirties have done exactly that – until of course the end of the good times in the recent market collapse. But then the question arises: “What now? What about the rest of my life – the next forty years?”
Most of the young hi-tech millionaires that I have seen continue doing much of the same: they start new companies, they try to repeat their success. Why? They tell themselves it is to prove it was not a fluke, to prove they can do it alone, without a particular partner or mentor. They raise the bar. To feel that they and their family are secure, they no longer need one or two million in the bank – they need five, ten, even twenty-five million to feel secure. They realize the pointlessness and irrationality in earning more money when they already have more than they can possibly spend but they do not stop. They realize they are taking away time from their families, from things closer to the heart, but they cannot give up playing the game – “the money is just lying out there” they tell me, “all I have to do is pick it up.” They have to make deals. One real estate entrepreneur told me that he felt he would disappear if he stopped. Many fear boredom – even the faintest whiff of boredom sends them right back to the game.
Unlike my approach to other existential ultimate concerns (death, isolation, freedom) I find that, in my clinical practice, purpose-in-life is best approached obliquely – it is best not to pursue purpose explicitly but to allow it to ensue from meaningful and authentic engagement, from plunging into an enlarging, fulfilling, self-transcending endeavor. We therapists do most good by identifying and helping to remove the obstacles to such engagement. The explicit pursuit of purpose-in-life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying: it is best to immerse oneself into the river of life and let the question drift away. Incidentally, I’ll point out in passing that one of the great privileges of our profession as therapists is that it inoculates us against a crisis of purposelessness – that is a complaint I very rarely hear voiced by experienced therapists.