Recently I drove by a sign in front of a church proclaiming, “What is your purpose on Earth? Come in and find out.” This goes against everything that existentialism teaches. Yet some people would love for someone to tell them the meaning of their life.
In a presentation I did recently on “Morals, Values, and Empowerment” (you can watch it here on YouTube) the discussion focused on the difference between accepting morals unquestionably, and determining your own values through thoughtful deliberation. Much of my writing focuses on questioning thinking, questioning where behavior and beliefs come from, and then determining what will be accepted and what will be changed. This is empowerment, this is creating oneself, and this is the core of existential behavior. It is also applicable to creating the purpose in life.
Viktor Frankl, who is identified as one of the early Existential practitioners, spent years in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. In his book “Man’s Search For Meaning” he recounts the experience and extolls every person’s power to create his or her own meaning. He purported that, “the meaning of life, differ(s) from man to man, moment to moment.” (pg. 77). He goes on to say, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.”(pg. 109). Frankl understood that there is no general meaning of life, and that each person has the power to create it for him or her self.
Think of how much easier it is to let someone determine the purpose of life; there is no longer a struggle, no more wondering. The choice is made for you, eliminating the responsibility of making it yourself. You no longer have to take responsibility for your life; another has done that for you. It sounds better to some, but robs them of their power, and possibly of a truer meaning that could be created.
In developmental psychology there is a term for deciding on personality prematurely, “identity foreclosure”. Theorists believe it is important to try on different roles, different personalities, experimenting with possibilities, as is normal in adolescence. This is highly relatable to determining what one’s purpose is. Perhaps adopting a purpose before exploring and trying on different possibilities could be called purpose foreclosure. A visitor to my home once asked, “Are you looking for the meaning of life?”. My response was a simple “yes.” But just as an institution cannot healthily determine the purpose of life for an individual, neither can a book. The answer does not lie outside of one, but within.
It isn’t just institutions that will tell you what your purpose is; in this culture the media sells life’s meaning. As I wrote in “The Psychopathology of Normal,” many fall into the trap of accepting that life’s meaning comes from what they have. There is a drive that lingers inside, which Maslow described as the desire to self-actualize. Rather than determining the meaning of life, people assume the “American Dream” is the meaning, and quell their drive for self-actualization with things. It is almost accepted without thought, unconsciously. Some people go through much of their life chasing a dream that was sold to them, only to find it doesn’t bring the happiness or meaning promised. Then, to return to developmental psychology, they find themselves in the negative side of Erikson’s stage “Generativity versus Stagnation”. Stagnated, they wonder if the American Dream is all there was. In this stage, a person wonders what he or she has done in his or her life, and how he or she has cared for the world.
Answer for yourself what the meaning of life is. Think about what you believe to be life’s meaning, and then look at how your behavior demonstrates it. Many report their personal meaning of life as one thing, but it would never be guessed by their behavior. A good place to start finding what you believe is to ask yourself, “what do I believe the meaning of life is, and what does my behavior suggest the meaning is?” One can also determine to create the meaning in life. As I’ve said in previous posts (Will Your Choice Bring Happiness Or Heartache, Authentic Personal Growth, That’s Just How I Am, and Using Mortality To Become More Conscious) one can be self-created in every moment. And this self-creation can move one toward the meaning in life that is self-chosen.
Therapy is an avenue for people to determine what the meaning of their life is. Clients grapple with their values and take the time to look within. For many who enter therapy, it is a dull ache of emptiness that brings them in. For others the dull ache has become a problem in living, a depression, an anxiety, a substance abuse problem. Some will never enter therapy, and will simply carry the emptiness around. Therapy isn’t the only way to resolve the issue, of course. There are many books to be read, information to be digested, reflection, meditation, searching and experimentation that can assist in determining your life’s meaning. The important consideration is to search for it in yourself, rather than simply accepting someone else’s idea of it.
Copyright William Berry, 2013
Frankl, Viktor. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning.