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Meaning & Transcendence

There are a number of easy answers to the question, “What's the meaning of my life?” One friend said that the answer was obvious, “There is no meaning for life. It just is!” Another response is to point out that any answer would require that “meaning” be open to assessment – that there exist a way of measuring or assessing “meaning”. Absent such a metric, the question cannot be answered. In its presence, the answer is obvious, … do what improves meaning.

Neither of these responses is particularly satisfying, at least not on an emotional level. I want my life to have a purpose (or purposes); I want my existence to be meaningful. The question, however, had little emotional impact before “modern” times. Before the Renaissance, people were born into a place and were assumed and required to play specific roles. Their “purpose” was largely foreordained. They might not have been happy with the role they were assigned, but there was little doubt about that role.

That's not the way it is in our world. We have much greater freedom to select our own role; to work towards a purpose that we choose; to decide the meaning that we will give to our lives. There is even some evidence of a positive connection between meaning and well-being. Necessarily, that's a somewhat slippery connection – a part of well-being is feeling good about yourself and one consequence of having meaning is to feel somewhat better about your life.

I would point to two important reference sources. Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning was one of the texts that “inspired” this course. Dr. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps, and found a renewed sense of meaning through his ordeal. He dedicated his life to helping patients discover the meaning that made sense for them. There is now a whole school of psychotherapy dedicated to helping patients discover a meaning in their lives – logotherapy.

For me, meaning needs to be something more than just emotionally satisfying. For Dr. Frankl helping patients discover an emotionally satisfying meaning seemed to be enough. And logotherapy has helped thousands to an improved sense of well-being. Irvin Yalom has taken this approach an important step forward. He embeds a search for meaning in a larger existential view of psychotherapy. His 1980 Existential Psychotherapy is still viewed as a solid introduction to the field.

Dr. Yalom is an interesting therapist. He is a successful novelist, with a number of best-sellers to his credit, e.g. The Schopenhauer Cure, Momma and the Meaning of Life, etc. His Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (with Molyn Leszcz, 2005) is now in its fifth  edition and is accepted as one of the definitive texts on the subject. I find his chapter on Meaninglessness in Existential Psychotherapy to be one of the best presentations of the psychology of meaning.

He begins that chapter with a quote from a suicide note:

“Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in work. They are carrying bricks in an open field, they proceed to transport them to the opposite end. This continues without stop and every day of every year they are busy doing the same thing. One day one of the morons stops long enough to ask himself what he is doing. He wonders what purpose there is in carrying the bricks. And from that instant on his is not quite as content with his occupation as he had been before. I am that moron who wonders why his is carrying the bricks.”

There is no answer provided in that chapter of Yalom's text, but he admirably succeeds in presenting the importance of the question, at least to some people, some of the time.

This section of the class notes began by pointing out that meaning needs to have a definition outside the individual in order for “the meaning for life” to have meaning. A kind of transcendence is required to find that definition. We must look beyond ourselves to something “other”. This stepping outside of one's self is what I take to be the basis for transcendence; it's what Maslow came to see as the highest level of our needs hierarchy.

What is this “other”? What is beyond us? My friend who said that there is no meaning to life basically argued that there is no “other”. Most religions, on the other hand, have an answer about the “other”. Christianity has a supreme being, an omniscient, omnipotent God. I take a mid-position: The “other” is those communities which I value. The next class examines why that makes psychological and evolutionary sense. At least, it will provide arguments and evidence that I find (emotionally) persuasive.

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May 6 – June 10 (6 sessions) Time: Wednesdays, 10:10 a.m. – 11:55 a.m. Location