The Meaning of Life

By Dale Easley

May 14, 2003

I and a few close friends given to depression have often batted about the question, "What is the meaning of life?" One of these friends, Ken, has made the move from geologist to psychotherapist and grapples professionally with the question. A recent discussion with him has helped me to flesh out an answer that may not be exactly what I originally had in mind, but can at least help one through the struggle.

Ken's assertion is that it is an innate human trait to find meaning in life. That's just what humans do. His job then is not to provide meaning or even help patients discover it, but to help them rediscover it. Kids who are raised without major abuse don't struggle with meaning and purpose---that comes later in life. Day to day life provides sufficient meaning as is. If the homelife is fairly healthy, they live mostly in the present, leaving the worries about the future up to parents or other adults. However, for many of us, adolescence can be more than a little traumatic. The peer pressure, bodily changes, onset of adulthood, etc., can bring on severe self-examination, especially in the superficial society created by advertising and our consumer society. The basic strength of our relationships with our parents is replaced by fickle peer relationships and the first relationships that are tinged with sexuality, if not sex. Relationships can easily become another commodity to be consumed.

Note from Ken: Although I was drinking [during our discussion last night], I think my assertion was more that the meaning of human life is found in relationship with others. Even the hermit whittling turtles out of juniper knots in the desert is living in relation to others, a counterrelationship, but still a powerful part of defining who he is and what his life means (i.e., to be a hermit requires the existence of a community to reject). For most of us (western adults), the necessity of others in our lives is maybe a little clearer. The three-year-old who insists that mommy watch her hop around on one foot clearly can only make meaning of her life if it is observed by a responsive other. Object relations theory tells us that the successfully developing child will gradually learn to cope with the inevitable periods of frustration when no one is available to admire their efforts by internalizing a psychic representation of the loving parent. The child will gradually develop the ability to be sustained by their internal representation (their "object" in the jargon) for longer and longer periods when mom is unavailable. (e.g., I am alone and miserable in my new kindergarten, but I know mommy loves me and is thinking about me, therefore, I can hold on until I see her this afternoon.) Successful development in this western model of the individual is achieved when the individual can sustain themselves internally and be productive in society with the minimum of actual relationship support. Men especially are expected to weather all difficulties fed only on their internal resources, or perhaps if they are fortunate, with the support of some idealized love who somewhat fits the template of the idealized mom he internalized as a three-year-old, a difficult template to live up to.

Dale again: As we enter adulthood, eventually we may work out our personal relationships, though the incidence of divorce indicates we still struggle. Regardless, the professional world introduces us to an entirely new way to have our soul sucked out. Despite the lip service paid to building strong employee support, many working people believed they are mainly being used by a few people at the top to advance someone's wealth and career. There are few American companies or institutes where the welfare of the employee rates as high as profit or "institutional effectiveness." Where's the meaning in that?

When nothing calls to our deeper longing for meaning, there are plenty of other things in our society calling to us---shopping, new things, work, drugs and alcohol, sex, chat rooms, TV, etc. We can stay plenty busy, in the process avoiding facing up to how meaningless our lives have become. But if we can force ourselves to sit quietly for a few minutes, the buried need for meaning pops up, and more than likely we'll pop up to get a cup of coffee and turn on the TV. It ain't pretty.