Authentic Engagement

A radical way of being.

The Need for Authentic Meaning

Who am I now? Who do I want to become?

As human beings, we need to make meaning of our existence. Meaning gives definition to our life and our life path. This search for meaning is often challenging. How do we make sense of who we are within a world that seems out of balance with poverty, war, and famine on the one hand and tremendous privilege on the other?

Religions and philosophies have pondered the question of meaning as a core tenet for their framework of beliefs. There are as many answers, from materialism to community to spirituality, as there are humans to think of them.

A key aim of the Existential-Humanistic perspective is to discover what your authentic meaning is. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in this quest are the questions, “Who am I now, what is my world, and who do I want to become?” Other questions can include, “How do I hold myself back from living the life I want? How do I embrace my existence as it is?” None of these are easy questions to answer and the answers are unique for each individual. The answers also change over the course of a person’s life. For example, the life canvas of a twenty-something is just starting to be painted, so the questions asked could be along the lines of, “Do I want to be partnered and if so, what sort of person would I want to be with? Where do I want to live and what do I want to do as my life’s work?” As a sixty-something, the painting is a lot more filled in. The questions could be along the lines of, “Where do I go from here? What legacy do I want to leave? Have I done the things I meant to do? If not, can I still do them or do I need to come to terms with not doing them?”

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Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps of WW II, came to several realizations about what motivated him to live. Among them was sharing his food and providing emotional comfort to other prisoners, focusing on the love of his wife and family who were also prisoners, and imagining he would be with them at the end of the war. He also was inspired by envisioning the book he would write about why some people survive the most dire of conditions and some don’t. His conclusion was that a person’s discovery of meaning for their life allowed them to have hope and this helped them to be resilient. Tragically, most of his family died by the time the war ended. However, Frankl still found meaning by actualizing his vision to write The Search for Meaning and establishing Logotherapy, an existential psychotherapy.

A core tenet of the Existential-Humanistic perspective reflects Frankl’s awareness that the search for meaning is a central task of existence. We all want to know why we are here and how we can best move forward in our life path.

You might want to do the following exercise. Ask yourself, “What is the meaning of my life now?” For ten minutes, write down whatever comes to mind. Just let the answers come without judging them. Then, ask yourself the question, “What do I want the meaning of my life to be?” and write for ten minutes more. Compare your answers. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Asking these questions launches a conscious process of searching for meaning in your life. You become engaged with your life rather than being on automatic. It takes courage to do this search and I believe it is ultimately very rewarding.

Bob Edelstein, L.M.F.T., M.F.T., is an existential humanistic psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon.

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