“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” Nietzsche
Whether you are someone who has had a mid-life crisis or a wanderer who searches the world’s trends and ideas to find direction or even someone who sit at work, dreaming of why, whoever you are, the search for a meaning in life sits within every human being.
How do we find it? Why does it bother some people so much? Do we all need to read philosophy or follow personal gurus to understand even the tiniest part of the why or purpose of our lives? Perhaps we are no more than accidental, or maybe there is after all, some grand plan. How can any of us be sure?
It’s not uncommon for those who actively search for a concrete meaning to the ‘why’ of existence to experience deep frustration. This deep frustration can lead to “noögenic neuroses (1)”. This is different from traditionally psychogenic neuroses. Noögenic (from the Greek ‘noös’ meaning mind) neuroses are not a result of conflict from the outside world. Rather, they come from frustration of the mind, from existential problems. What this means is that not all conflict inside oneself is a bad kind of neurotic. Internal conflict about the meaning and purpose of life is a healthy conversation taking place within the mind.
This deep concern or, in some cases, ‘despair’ over the worthwhileness of living must be seen as an existential problem. It is not a mental illness. It differs from depression although if not dealt with, could be a trigger into depression and psychogenic neuroses.
Schopenhauer said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. Is some of this feeling of an internal void, this existential distress in fact due to boredom? Could it possible be that we have much more time upon which to ponder this point? Don’t we have more leisure time? Or is it simply an inevitable part of the human condition?
Whether you believe in a deity or the afterlife, or nothing at all, here are some cheeky little suggestions, which may calm the soul and soothe the mind in regard to this ever perplexing question.
The meaning of life is a personal experience, i.e. the meaning understood by one person can only be specific to them.
The purpose of someone’s life can only be fulfilled by that person.
The significance that life holds in the small picture as well as the big picture will be relevant to that person alone.
But what to do if you are experiencing a deep sense of worry or despair over the purpose of your life? The meaning of who you or how you are?
In the words of Viktor E. Frankl,
“ Live as if you living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!(2) ”
He calls on each of us to consider how life is finite and to imagine that the present has already happened and yet, the past is open to change or amendment. Whether we respond with a sense of responsibility to the society around us or simply to our conscience, therein lies our answers.
Widen the visual field of your life and choices, only then, will all the potential meanings available to you become visible to your conscious mind. Then harvest what you find. Feast on it. It will be yours.
1. Logotherapy in a Nutshell, Viktor E. Frankl ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, Touchstone, New York 1962
2. Logotherapy in a Nutshell, Viktor E. Frankl ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, Touchstone, New York 1962
Text: © JL Nash, 2014
Images: © Predrag Pajdic, 2014, a collaboration with Ivan Sikic