Of all the reasons we work, the effort to leave a footprint to mark our passing on the earth is the most compelling. Among those who come to me with their stories it is easy to get caught up in the medical cycle of diagnosis and treatment. It is not hard to recognize depression and anxiety, the two most common disorders of those who seek help from a psychiatrist. The fact that we no have medications that are effective in lifting these burdens from people can obscure the fact that happiness is much more than the absence of sadness.
I often tell people that the medicine I am about to give them is designed only to relieve the burden of depression: the crushing weight, the cloud, the shackles that rob their lives of pleasure, their nights of sleep, and their closest relationships of the simple joys of companionship and intimacy. For many people, this is more than enough help. Relief from a pain long endured is a state devoutly to be wished, and people are grateful. For many, it is like being freed from prison, though the question remains: free to do what?
And yet, pleasure is not the absence of pain; nor is health the absence of disease. It is what we do and who we are with that makes us happy. In a larger sense our mortality confronts us with questions of meaning. What is the point of our daily struggles? Most of us now have the leisure to contemplate the reasons driving our work and our play.
There is a certain emptiness to the simple equation of work and consumption. ("I shop, therefore I am.") None of us are young enough, or rich enough to live up to the icons we create to stoke the engines of commerce. No one is immune from these influences, but all of us are in danger of endorsing the superficiality they purvey. The pictures of people in stores trampling each other to get to bargains on the aptly named "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving are both revealing and disturbing.
In our daily lives, questions of personal worth are recurrent, if seldom articulated. This is never more evident than in the lives of those who retire. We are so defined by our work that our identities without it are in question. Unless we have something else to anchor us, we are in danger of disappearing, of becoming unseen by those who are still "productive." Our families provide the most obvious continuing connections to a meaningful life. In this society, however, the status of the elderly is sufficiently devalued that even family ties are freighted with questions of mental and physical decline.
The groundwork for this unenviable state has been laid in the choices we make when young. The nature of most work - repetitive and unsatisfying - guarantees that we think of our jobs as little more than a means to support ourselves and to enable us to pursue leisure activities that commonly add little to our sense of personal significance. Our lives are, in short, starved for meaning.
I am convinced that this vacuum is what accounts for our fondness for organized religion. Deprived of a clear sense of purpose or satisfaction, apprehensive about the significance of our lives, fearful of the apparent finality of death, we are desperate for an explanation for our existence and eager for some reassurance that there is a reason behind our daily struggles. By agreeing to a set of divinely inspired rules, required only to come together regularly with like-minded believers to affirm our faith, we gain reassurance that however unhappy life makes us, there is salvation at the end.
So what do we do when the western horizon of our lives looms close? We can cultivate religion with its promise of immortality or we can surrender ourselves to the unknown as we try to imagine some meaning in the ceaseless rhythms of existence: life and death, dream and despair, and the heartbreaking mystery of unanswered prayers.
- Find a Therapist
- Topic Streams
- Get Help
RelationshipsLow Sexual Desire
Recently Diagnosed?Diagnosis Dictionary
- Psych Basics