9 Steps to Daily Purpose
How victims of authoritarian wounding can return to mattering.
Posted Mar 12, 2018
(This post is part of a series on authoritarian wounding and should be taken in the context of this ongoing series, which looks at many aspects of the authoritarian personality, the various ways that authoritarians harm their victims, and the efforts victims of authoritarian contact make to try to heal themselves. If you would like to participate in my research, I invite you to take my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire.)
A profound way in which victims of authoritarian wounding have been harmed is that they grew up not believing that they, their concerns, or their efforts mattered. They simply didn’t count. These feelings naturally and fairly inevitably led to outcomes like lifelong sadness, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, poor self-image, and an inability to live life purposefully and intentionally.
Trauma-informed care, the first line of help with regard to traumatized victims, can help with these challenges. But trauma-informed care, and any other care as well, ought to be supplemented by existential care. Any care provided to victims of authoritarian wounding ought to be supplemented with help that looks directly at encouraging clients to “return to mattering.”
At the heart of existential care is the philosophy known as existentialism. Existentialism is an ambitious philosophy that demands that each human being try his or her darnedest. It begs the individual to make use of the measure of freedom he possesses, that he look life in the eye and deal with reality, and that he stand tall as an advocate for human dignity. It argues that life, by pairing tremendous ordinariness with tremendous difficulty and by leading to nothing but death, is a cheat; and that human beings must nevertheless cheat the cheater by adopting an indomitable attitude and making the meaning they require.
This agenda sets the bar very high and doesn’t seem to suit most people. Existentialism failed because it is not really to most people’s taste. It makes work for them; it pesters them to be moral; it demands that they articulate their life purposes and live them; it alerts them to the likely complete purposelessness of the universe, and it announces that a kind of perpetual rebellion is necessary. That is a lot to ask.
Likewise, it trumpets that fitting in will not do and that all those easy pleasures and vices, while nobody’s business but your own, still must be judged by you—and found too easy and too unethical. It keeps asserting that you must be a hero—an absurd hero, to be sure, heroically keeping meaning afloat in the face of the void and working hard at the project of your life when life itself cares nothing about your efforts. It sets the bar extremely high—too high for the vast majority of people, most existentialists included.
Existentialists themselves usually failed at living with the bar set that high. They could articulate why the bar ought to be set that high, at the place of personal responsibility and ethical action they called authentic living, but they found it inconveniently difficult to live that mindful, measured, and pure a life. They proved in the living that our foibles defeat our resolutions much of the time. They proved it by living promiscuously. They proved it by gambling. They proved it by succumbing to addiction. They proved it by giving in to despair and taking to the sofa. They proved it by rejecting real work and choosing second-rate projects. They saw clearly where they had placed the bar—apparently much too high above them.
It was simply too hard to live as carefully, ethically, and authentically as the tenets of existentialism demanded. The tenets were lovely, albeit in an ice-water sort of way; but the reality was daunting. Therefore, existentialism never really caught on. For a while after the Second World War millions of young people read about it, nodded in agreement with its premises, but drifted away from it because of its rigors. Jobs called; sex called; vision quests called; soccer on Saturday called; stock portfolios called. It was fine to read a little Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus in college—but sensible, it seemed, to then put that behind you and get on with your daily commute and your evening drinking.
Existentialism didn’t allow for an array of things that human beings actually wanted, like permission to be petty and permission to waste vast amounts of time. It didn’t condone silent acquiescence or slogan-sized commandments. It frowned on group allegiances and social frivolity. Existential philosophy acknowledged these desires perhaps more clearly than any other philosophy but then asked people not to indulge them—and people passed on the invitation. Many remained nostalgic for those high ideals and sometimes did a little looking back, maybe reading Nausea or The Stranger in the bathroom. But essentially, they passed on the invitation, any nostalgia notwithstanding.
People passed for other reasons, too. Not only did existentialism demand that they live an ethically vigilant life where each action was the culmination of an important internal moral debate, but they were also supposed to “transcend” personality and the facts of existence and escape the net in which every human being is entangled. This was not only a lot to ask—it was perhaps unfair and impossible. How were you supposed to not be the person you had developed into? How were you supposed to shrug off illness, war, disaster, and every manner of calamity and constraint and stand tall? How, to take our main subject, were you supposed to transcend the real victimization you experienced at the hands of an authoritarian? How was any of that really doable?
Take human energy itself. The existential vision pictures a human being in control of herself. But what if you are flying along in a manic way in pursuit of some impossible dream and really don’t want to stop and take a measured reckoning? What if you want to act impulsively—intuitively, if you like—and take a pass on some stolid calm that seriously slows you down? It seemed like a choice had to be made between a snail’s pace rationality and our very life force—and people choose pulsation over calculation.
To be fair, many existentialists understood all this. Each danced the poignant dance of demanding much from human beings while doubting that the effort was possible or even plausible. They doubted and wondered. Why make such a Herculean effort at authenticity when personality hung like a lead weight around your neck and the facts of existence ruined many of your plans? All that wondering and doubting lead to those trademarks of existential thought: fear and trembling, nausea, existential anxiety, existential dread and, of course, absurdity.
The more we announced that man mattered, the more we saw that he really didn’t. The better we understood that the dinosaurs could be extinguished in the blink of an eye by an asteroid strike or some other natural disaster, the better we understood that we could suffer a similar fate. The better we understood the power of microbes, and even as we worked hard and pretty well to fight them, the better we understood that something functionally invisible and endlessly prevalent could end our personal journey on any given afternoon. The more science taught us, the more we shrank in size—and shrank back in horror. You could build the largest particle accelerator the world had ever seen and recreate the Big Bang and psychologically speaking you would end up with only more of nothing—even more of nothing if that were possible.
It is this apprehension of cosmic indifference that existentialists faced squarely—and demanded that you face, too. But who wants that daily dose of despair? We had all somehow wagered that well-stocked supermarkets and guaranteed elections would do the trick and protect us from the void. But they didn’t. This now hundred-year-long certainty that we are throwaways has made life look completely unfunny. We can laugh together over a bottle of wine and make small talk about this and that, adding a kind of cultural laugh track to a very unfunny situation comedy. But in most of our private seconds there is not much laughter. Rather there is a deep, wide, abiding “Why bother?” And who wanted existentialists reminding us of that?
Still, existential ideas are probably the right ones. You take as much control as possible of your thoughts, your attitudes, your moods, your behaviors, and your very orientation toward life and marshal your innate freedom in the service of your intentions. You stand up, you tell truth to power, you name and then take responsibility for your life purpose choices, you deal with meaninglessness by making new meaning investments and seizing new meaning opportunities, and you dismiss absurdity as true but irrelevant. This is quite a mouthful—and not for everyone. But is it perhaps for you? And is it perhaps what will most help your clients who have been wounded by their contact with an authoritarian and who do not feel as if they count or matter?
How might you add an existential component to your helping? It’s simple enough. You begin by listening. You start to conjure responses in your own mind. You ask questions for clarification if you do not understand. At some point, you decide where you want to focus and how you want to reply. All helpers do this. The difference is that you include wonders about meaning, life purpose, and the other large “existential” issues of life in your thinking and in your speculating. There are many ways to conceptualize this work but one way is to suppose that you are helping clients in nine specific areas. You can present this to clients as “nine steps to personal fulfillment” or “nine ways to live with more purpose” or in any language you like. Or, rather than presenting it to them, you can use this list to inform your work with clients.
Here is what you are inviting clients to do:
1. You decide to matter
The universe is not built to care about you. You must care about you. You must announce that you are opting to matter. You must announce that you are making the startling, eye-opening decision to take responsibility for your thoughts and your actions and live life instrumentally.
2. You accept that you must make meaning
You finally let go of the demoralizing wish that meaning rain down on you from some golden universal shower and accept that the only meaning that exists is the meaning that you make. You announce once and for all that you are the final arbiter of meaning.
3. You identify your life purposes
If you are going to actively make meaning in accordance with your life purposes, you had better know what your life purposes are, articulate them, memorize them, and make sure that you really believe in them.
4. You articulate a life purpose statement
You list your life purposes, rank order your life purposes, and do something with them that allows you to hold in a single phrase or a single sentence a clear understanding of how you intend to live your life and represent yourself in the universe.
5. You hold the intention to fulfill your life purposes
You need to keep your meaning-making efforts firmly in mind. You must be able to remember your life purposes even when you are tired, bothered, distracted, upset, and otherwise not in your best frame of mind. When life resumes it habitual busyness, you are still able to firmly hold your intentions and manifest them.
6. You passionately act to fulfill your life purposes
Every day you make some meaning in accordance with your life purposes. Maybe eight hours of your day are robbed by activities that do not align with your life purposes and that you must attend to for all the usual reasons. But some hours remain—and you must use them!
7. You navigate the world and the facts of existence
The world is not built to accommodate you. Your favorite bakery may close or war may break out—from the smallest to the largest, the facts of existence are exactly what they are. They include pain and pleasure, loyalty and betrayal, life and death. All this you must navigate, right up until the final moment.
8. You create yourself in your own best image
You have indubitable strengths and every manner of shadow. If you live in those shadows you will never quite respect yourself. Do better by manifesting your strengths and becoming the person you know you want to become. Surrender to the truth that you would prefer to be your best self.
9. You live the life of a passionate meaning-maker
You don’t idly chat about meaning, brood about meaning, look for meaning, complain about meaning, buy a book about meaning, take a workshop on meaning: you make meaning. You live a life where, day in and day out, you make meaning. You make choices, decisions, and an effort. You wait for nothing: you live.
What flows from embracing these precepts, if a client is willing, is a way of negotiating each day so that he or she gets to live his or her newly-articulated life purposes. Existential-informed care involves helping clients make decisions about “how much meaning they need,” where they will make that meaning when they’ll feel entitled to “vacations from meaning,” and so on. This is a way of conceptualizing how to turn the idea of “living intentionally” into a genuine daily practice.
When you live your life as a passionate meaning-maker each day is a special sort of negotiation. You make decisions about where you will invest meaning and how you will handle activities that hold no particular meaning for you. You make a daily bargain with yourself that if you hold to your intentions you will find no reason to doubt the meaningfulness of that day. It is like saying, “If I have a good breakfast, somehow get through the holiday buffet at the office without overdoing it, and have just one treat this evening, I won’t get down on myself about what I ate today.”
You do not aim for some unattainable perfection. You recognize that the three hours you spend making phone calls to nursing homes on behalf of your ailing father should be toted up on the side of meaning, even if they feel like drudgery and even if the actual phoning makes you anxious. You accept that you need vacations from “the whole meaning thing” on a daily basis and pencil in the novel you want to read or the movie you want to watch without the slightest pang of guilt. At the same time, you adamantly demand of yourself that you put in that hard hour on your Internet business doing the thing that you’ve been avoiding doing. This is not a “perfect” day as measured against some imaginary ideal but it is a carefully negotiated day full of hard work, service, and relaxation and a day to completely accept—and to be proud of.
All day long you make judgments and decisions, judging, for instance, that a moment has come when you had better make some meaning or else risk a meaning crisis; or deciding that plenty of meaning has been made already and that now you’re entitled to a television show and some chocolate. You use your various techniques, like maintaining a morning meaning practice, to effectively negotiate your daily meaning challenges. These are the sorts of ideas that an existentially-inclined helper can share with clients. Over time, such a helper will acquire all sorts of useful tactics and strategies and find his or her idiosyncratic ways of helping clients deal more effectively with their doubts and fears that they matter and their challenges in the realms of life purpose and meaning.