The Center for Disease Control recently released statistics on suicide showing a sharp increase across the board, but particularly within the middle-aged male population. Although researchers point to a number of variables potentially contributing to this trend, another, more subtle, factor to consider may be loss of meaning and thwarted sense of purpose.
A sense of personal meaning is central to positive psychospiritual functioning. In our current culture, meaning is often tied to success, and success is typically measured in status and affluence. The current state of the economy, unemployment, underemployment, changes in social standing, and the tail of the recent economic downturn that still plagues us are all factors impinging on that perspective.
With a loss of status and affluence comes a loss of feeling “successful,” as measured by current cultural standards. In this climate, a diminished sense of success amplifies loss of meaning and purpose, and, without some other tether to place and purpose, an existential crisis most certainly looms.
Suicide is the final gesture of a person who sees no more options. A tether to place and purpose that reaches beyond the standard imperative of what it means to be successful provides options that might otherwise be missed, or even unavailable. In redefining success, we redefine ourselves. In both cases, that redefinition derives from a shift in perspective supported by a move away from the ego-self and toward an evolution of existential intelligence.
Existential intelligence is the ability to see the big picture. It is a worldview that extends beyond the immediate and into our larger context. That immediate context, like the ego-self, is tied to the moment, and it’s where often we get stuck. Without a sense of the bigger picture, we tend to forget one very simple fact—it won’t always be like this.
In the case of the current culturally-sanctioned definition of success, developing this intelligence means, in part, acknowledging and accepting impermanence and change, while simultaneously recognizing ourselves as the singular constant. In addition, it means releasing our attachment to our momentary circumstance and connecting with something that may be less tangible than our Porsche or Gold Card, but infinitely more valuable. In essence, it is recognizing that as things change, we can adapt, and with adaptation will come opportunity and options. All of this hinges on our self-definition.
Somewhere along the line, “who we are” got confused with “what we do.” When in the context of social interaction, we will, more often than not, ask people what they do. If, on the other hand, we were to ask someone who they are, they would very likely respond with a label describing what they do. When identity is attached to that label and the social value of the label becomes diminished, identity becomes diminished. Tie the perception of what it means to be successful into that dynamic and “I earn less” becomes “I am less.” This, in turn, can easily lead us into a cycle of self-denigration that, at its most toxic, strips us of all options, leaving us ripe for despair.
The path out of this maze is self-recognition and redefinition. Self-recognition means peeling away the layers of the ego-self to reveal the true nature and separating that nature from the label that binds us to the arbitrary social definition of success. Are you a doctor, or a healer? Are you a stay-at-home-mom, or a creator of community? Are you a contractor, or an artisan? Are you a small business owner, or an engine of the economy? And if any of those labels—doctor, stay-at-home-mom, contractor, small business owner—unravels beneath you, are you any less the person you were before? Redefinition means recognizing who we are beneath those labels, and shifting our perspective on what it means to be successful to reflect that.
Both self-recognition and redefinition restore our dignity and open our eyes to a broader worldview that is no longer the stagnant vision of the ego-self, but the evolutionary vision that feeds our deeper understanding of ourselves, the world, and our role in it.
© 2013 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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