An interesting confluence of experiences inspired me to finally write a blog post about a pair of subjects that are ubiquitous in our lives and so important to psychotherapy, yet large and abstract enough that I have passed up exploring them for lower hanging fruit. I hope you will read on as I explore the related concepts of meaning and purpose.
Always there is the backdrop of my own struggles as well as the struggles of my courageous clients around finding meaning in life and the freedom to choose one’s own path. I was recently asked to participate in a podcast about these ideas and was organizing my thoughts about them when my husband and I saw the movie Annihilation. In this film, there is no obvious plan or motive behind the event upon which the story centers. The cause appears random, even accidental. The changes are incomprehensible and impersonal. The consequences are beautiful and terrible. In response to what she sees, the psychologist character laments, “It’s destroying everything.” The biologist character retorts, “It’s not destroying… It’s making something new.” The fantastical world of “the shimmer” is not unlike our current existence – chaotic, yet suggestive of patterns – amazing and horrifying all at the same time.
There are many possible views of meaning. One is THE Meaning of Life – some truth out there to be discovered. Another is what makes life meaningful – something we construct from the inside. One is fixed, incontrovertible, immutable. The others is flexible, fluid and full of possibilities. Even when we have a tradition or faith that provides us with meaning, each interprets it through individual senses, thoughts, feelings, and experiences – a unique lens.
Its hard for me to believe that anyone alive today possesses THE meaning, and that is okay. In fact, I find it to be an act of courage when someone can admit this to themselves, let alone to others. I think we can live perfectly well without knowing for sure. I think we can even live well if life is completely random and impersonal, as it appears in Annihilation.
On the other hand, the process of constructing what gives one’s own life meaning can be very useful because this becomes the scaffolding upon which we might build our reality. This is often what drives our sense of purpose, which in turn drives our actions.
Purpose can also be a tough concept to unpack. This word implies an outcome and the difficulty with that is we are not as in control of outcomes as we’d like to believe. I prefer the word intention, which isn’t dependent upon outcome and acknowledges our limitations. Intentions motivate our thoughts and feelings, choices and actions, the consequences of which can ripple out far beyond our own limited lives. Both intention and purpose involve holding something in mind as we think, feel and act. When we are mindful, we have a chance to respond in line with our heartfelt intentions.
Meaning and purpose provide a way to explain our existence and our path. By inquiring into the who, what, when, where, why and how of our lives, we write our stories. “How did we get here?” “Why are we here?” “Where are we going?” For many, the answers we construct to these questions help us feel more connected, less lonely, like we truly matter – and this provides the fuel needed to carry on in a way that is beneficial. For others, a sense of openness, curiosity, and wonder about experience, and making a still, quiet space for exploration and contemplation, is enough to guide the way.
However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. ― Stanley Kubrick