The Meaning of Life part 1


What is the meaning of life? A young man, Patrick barely 21, posed this question to me the other day. His original complaint was of anxiety and panic attacks. Associated with this was worry, procrastination and pessimism. The advantage of the latter for him is that you never get disappointed. Expect the worst and if it doesn’t happen at least you were prepared. Murphy’s law.

He has a family history of mood disorders but was not seriously depressed only gloomy. I opted for mindfulness meditation as opposed to antidepressants in accordance with the thermostat model that I like to use. Of course how accurate that is, is irrelevant as his symptoms improved but not his ultimate concerns.

Many anxious patients suffer existential dread occasioned by their preoccupation with bodily vulnerability. We get old, die and this is followed by black empty nothingness. That’s how he viewed the future so why bother? Of course this raised the matter of suicide in more than just the philosophical sense.

He fortunately wasn’t inclined this way as this  would eliminate the challenge of the questioning process. An unexamined life is an unworthy one Socrates would say, who also said that most folks live life so abstracted from the meaning of existence that they wake up one day dead. Patrick enjoyed these quotes as it was comforting to know his concerns were both universal and historical. I said that he, as an intellectual, was “condemned” to ponder these issues. That by itself might be what life was about. Philosophy was for travellers and religion was for those who prefer to arrive somewhere.

His plan was to study social work in the fall. Maybe get a PhD in psychology. His girlfriend is studying cosmetology. She is a good counterweight as “she never thinks about this stuff.” Naturally  he considers her a bit shallow and her life philosophy reflects that of the surrounding environment, rational hedonism. This is one of suburban sprawl and debt driven consumerism. An Audi in every driveway, next to the boat that gets used once in a while. Where the meaning of life is granite countertops and mindless shopping, overeating, ice fishing and copious consumption of beer and maryjane.

We discussed the symbolism and he understood the futility and ultimate meaningless of all of this as societal sanctioned antidepressants. I discussed Sartre who in his seminal work “Nausea” becomes convinced that the inanimate objects and situations of bourgeois life encroach on the ability to define the self on an intellectual and spiritual plane.

Nobody in his social group were much interested in these discussions. His girlfriend would have liked Edgar Allen Poe…”the best things in life make you sweaty” keep busy, move a lot, make love, don’t think too much. Doesn’t totally work for him.

Religion didn’t do it for him either.  He was raised Catholic but none of it made any sense. He liked the Voltaire quote.. ” I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in mother goose.” We also discussed Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.. that you reach the abyss, stare at nothingness, and leap into the arms of God. Nope not going to work. He viewed praying as making a phone call to God with no one at the other end.

I sent him to Kurt Vonnegut.. “In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, and  so God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man.  God leaned close as man sat, looked around, and spoke. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.”Everything must have a purpose?” asked God. “Certainly,” said man.”Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God. And He went away.”

I prescribed the film, Life of Pi which he liked and which is basically a story  of human struggles between religion and rationalism. His girlfriend fell asleep during the film. The tiger in the story gave the protagonist a purpose in life and this led us to a discussion of the other as that purpose, as well as the need for rising above the self..transcendance. This explained his choice of profession and how it would provide meaning and purpose for him by helping others.

We  also discussed how some find meaning and the illusion of immortality in the form of leaving something permanent behind ….music, art, a book, or children. The latter seemed too commonplace for him and was too far into the future if at all. But he understood that for many the passing on of genes creates the illusion of permanence.

As of his last session of what I can call existential therapy we concluded that for many the illusions are necessary. Children, altruistic acts, taking on a cause beyond the self  and the significant other..and “that the only real purpose of our lives consists in waking each other up and being there for each other.”

Perhaps that’s good enough.

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