What Does It All Mean?

Existential bibliotherapy can address life's ultimate questions

Posted Oct 23, 2011

"[I]f there were so many people in the world, there had to be someone living an interesting life who wasn't ordinary. I was sure of it. Why wasn't that person me?" — The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya

This past summer, I was introduced by a college-age friend to the novel The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, written by Nagaru Tanigawa (English translation by Chris Pai, Little Brown and Company, 2009). The Haruhi Suzumiya series and resulting manga and anime adaptations have been wildly popular in recent years, with international sales of the novels and manga estimated at over 16 million copies.

I was expecting from this Japanese light novel a mostly comic story of an unusual girl and the even more unusual members of the school club she creates, the SOS (Spreading excitement all Over the world with Haruhi Suzumiya) Brigade. What I wasn't expecting, and what I was drawn to, were the existential themes, hinted at in the book's title, that are integral to the characters and plot, and that's when I knew what drew my friend in, as well.

What is existentialism? Existential thought is both easier to understand than many people realize and more widely experienced than one might imagine. Existential concerns are simply questions having to do with our human existence and the search for meaning to which such questions can lead. Existential philosophies are varied in their specifics, but they all wrestle with such topics as the absurdity of existence, the extent to which we are truly free, and what constitutes a meaningful life. In psychology, existential psychotherapy helps patients to deal with these "ultimate" postmodern concerns.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya shows how easily bright and creative young people can find themselves standing on an existential precipice, asking important questions that have no easy answers. Such questioning can be triggered by something as normal as a baseball game, as Haruhi explains to the book's narrator, Kyon:

"During elementary school, when I was in sixth grade, my whole family went to watch a baseball game at the stadium. I wasn't particularly interested in baseball, but I was shocked once we got there. There were people everywhere we looked. The ones on the other side of the stadium looked like squirming grains of rice packed together. I wondered if every last person in Japan attended this game."

She asks her dad how many people are at the game and later does the math to learn what a tiny percentage of the country's population were all of those people in and around the stadium.

"Not only was I just one little person in that sea of people in that stadium, but that sea of people was merely a drop in the ocean."

This is when she realizes that all that she thought of as special in her life was happening in thousands, millions of places and homes and lives everywhere, and it was at that moment that "everything started to feel so boring."

James T. Webb explains that fighting existential melancholy can feel like trying to break free from a straitjacket:

"[T]the more they try to struggle out of-or wallow in-their depression, the more they become acutely aware that their life is brief and ultimately finite, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a very large world, and that there is a frightening freedom and responsibility regarding how one chooses to live one's life. They feel disillusioned, and they question life's meaning, often asking themselves, 'Is this all there is to life? Isn't there some ultimate and universal meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am one small, insignificant organism alone in an absurd, arbitrary, and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I just die. Is this all there is?' Questions like this promote a sense of personal disintegration."

Carlo Strenger, in his book The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-First Century, describes this feeling as "the looming threat of the feeling of being an insignificant speck in a universe that is indifferent to us." Strenger asks how we find and measure significance in a world that ranks and rates nearly every online footprint, from Facebook friends to blog hits to Google rankings. Not too long ago, we came face to face with the vastness of our insignificance mainly when, like Haruhi, we traveled or attended a particularly crowded event. Today, however, we are reminded of our place, our ranking, every time we log on to our computers. Strenger writes that our modern credo is "I am ranked, therefore I am," which can lead to "a pervasive existential panic" and "a persistent sense of failing to live lives that truly matter."

Walking on the beach
Strenger and other existential thinkers, including Kazimierz Dabrowski, suggest that we resist running from or masking these uncomfortable feelings. In fact, in order to grow, we must experience existential discomfort, come to terms with it, and work through to the other side, which is potentially more fulfilling and more meaningful than where we were before.

Adults can help teens and young adults in the throes of existential questioning by valuing and honoring their experience, listening rather than pacifying or ignoring. That's not to say that such listening is always easy. In an article about addressing adolescence existential dread, J'Anne Ellsworth reminds us that "it is hard work to listen deeply and openly enough to honor that intensity, and doing so is sometimes rather unpleasant" for adults, who may fear hearing the very questions that they struggle with themselves:

"What if part of the burden of brilliance is the roller coaster of knowing too much, seeing too much, feeling too much? By too much, I refer to the times children ask questions that we regard at face value and thus perceive as shallow, and since they are young we 'spare' them depth, so they continue in the loop of horror. Or, we assuage them rather than listening deeply enough to engage the profundity of the issues and concerns being expressed?"

Any parent of a teenager knows the futility of forcing these kinds of serious discussions. "What existential concerns did you have today?" does not usually make for pleasant dinner conversation. A more effective alternative is informal bibliotherapy—using books and reading to address personal issues. Judith Wynn Halsted, the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Books, explains in her article "Using Books to Meet the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students":

"When an adult and child both read a book in which the characters deal with some of the same issues the child is facing, they are preparing for a meaningful discussion that might not happen otherwise. After all, the characters in books are separate from the child—it is often easier for a child to talk about the problems of a fictional character than about her own problems. Reading and then discussing books with children is an easy, readily available, inexpensive, and very pleasant way of helping children think and talk about the situations they face—a non-threatening approach, because they are talking about someone else."

In the case of older teens and young adults, parents or other adults might want to look first to what the young person is already reading or viewing, to see if the material contains within it and perhaps was even chosen for its meaningful, pertinent themes, which can occur frequently in such genres as anime, fantasy, or science fiction. Simply by showing an interest, parents can begin to forge a connection, helping both child and adult to know they are less alone. And, in the end, isn't that what we all want?


Ellsworth, J. (2003). Adolescence and gifted: Addressing existential dread. Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Retrieved from http://www.sengifted.org/articles_counseling/Ellsworth_AdolescenceAndGif...

Halsted, J. (2010). Using books to meet the social and emotional needs of gifted students. Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Retrieved from http://www.sengifted.org/articles_social/halsted_using_books_meet_needs....

Strenger, C. (2010). The fear of insignificance: Searching for meaning in the twenty-first century. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan

Webb, J. (2009). Dabrowski's theory and existential depression in gifted children and adults. Davidson Institute for Talent Development. Retrieved from http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10554.aspx


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