Meaning and Health in Life

Personal events in my life recently reminded me of how true it is that all composite things are impermanent. This is a famous phrase from Buddhism, and the unstated extension from science is that everything is composite — you, me, both as bodies and psycho-social-emotional identity constructs, even atoms: all of these are impermanent. I quote this line often as a piece of wisdom in relation to discussions with others, but it’s easy to overlook in one’s own life.

For Christmas, I went home to see my family. For those of you who have read my blog regularly for a long time, you may recall that my father died this year, and this was the first winter holiday season without him. In the time between, my grandmother has struggled with his death, and the loss has driven her into an assisted living home in her local hospital. I went to see her while I was home.

Let me take a brief aside to provide some personal background and a perspective on psychology and philosophy. A few years ago, I completed a masters in clinical psychology. The program I was in had an existential-phenomenological theoretical stance. This meant that we looked at human experience holistically with an emphasis on personal meaning and the flavor of experience, rather than reductive methods and techniques (nothing against those by any means). One of the first books we read in the program was Viktor Frankl’s famous work Man’s Search for Meaning.  This is a book by another Austrian psychotherapist who was a contemporary of Freud and Adler. In the book, he talks about his experience in surviving the concentration camps and what he saw in the psychology of himself and other survivors: he saw that these prisoners perceived a meaning in their lives, a goal to work towards that gave their horrors in the concentration camps a limitation, a transcendent reason of some sort. That may sound religious or profound, a “Meaning of Life”, but it doesn’t need be. For the author, his was that he was convinced that his family was alive, and he needed to live to see them again. Frankl references a line from Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”***

Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 847-848). Kindle Edition.

The prisoners in the camps who lost this future goal, the simple purpose of seeing life holistically as some greater gestalt with projects above and beyond the life in the camps, were the ones who withered away and died or stopped trying to not be picked for activities that would lead to their deaths. In other words, existential despair of perceived meaninglessness in one’s own life can lead to a nihilistic idea that I may as well be dead. In fact, on a greater scale, this is precisely one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns in modern culture as a whole — a loss of the values that have informed Western society till now could lead to a threat of a nihilistic willing of self-destruction. I’ve never seen it read this way, but we could easily read another famous quote by Nietzsche in just this manner:

“Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. ” – Jenseits von Gut und Böse – retrieved at Nietzsche Source

“And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks back also into you.”
– my translation^^^

We could see this as the problem of an emptiness looking into us, becoming intimate with us, emptying us. The line before warns us that fighting monsters leads to becoming a monster, and apparently, we can surmise that staring at the yawning chasm of death that an abyss is leads to us being either more abyss-like or more tempted to jump in to our death: willing one’s own destruction in seeing oneself as an abyss.

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Maybe looking down doesn’t have to lead to anguish and despair

Returning to my story: I was concerned about my grandmother right away after my dad’s death. I called her not long after to make sure that someone was paying attention to her and giving her the room to express her own feelings about what had happened. We usually had fairly long phone calls and talked about books, the world, and the challenges I faced in growing into an adult, but this time, the call was brief, and my grandma said something along the line of not seeing much of a point anymore to things. My therapist senses tingled with concern — she had no meaning. She didn’t see any future to her world anymore.

I told my mom to make sure that my grandmother was OK, and it didn’t take long before she had to be taken to the assisted living facility. I knew all of this when I walked in to see her over the holidays, but I didn’t expect the dramatic change, the marching forward of impermanence in such a brief period. It had only been about 9 months since I had last seen her, but in that span of a baby’s gestation, she had aged seemingly 20 years. She’s lost 30 pounds and a lot of her faculties. I recalled an ex girlfriend telling me that when her dad fell off a horse (his passion) and broke his wrist, he aged years in the few months it took to fully heal. Clearly a trauma, physical or emotional, can really shake the stability of older people’s lives, and as Frankl noted, the loss of meaning can shake one’s life so critically that it begins to fully unwind.

I’m not sure I have a solid point or piece of wisdom to share in this post. I could counsel you to be aware of the meaning that you build in the narratives of your life and to be aware that the structures around which these are built will end, and the meanings you currently have will need to be amended. This is normal — you’ve likely changed course and built up new projects in the face of your own future and death several times, but it’s something else to realize that an intense personal trauma may wipe meaning off the table to the extent that you cannot readily amend your narrative and your meaning. Perhaps, the counsel is simply this: all of us, and all things we know will die. The mountains outside your window, the oceans you visit, the cities you grow up in — all of these are impermanent, having risen and fallen before, and they will do so again. This also applies to the people you know and yourself. Try to find your peace with that and be open to finding your way in the world without those people and places if they come to a sudden, unforeseen end, no matter how difficult it may be. I say this with no judgment for anyone — myself, my family, or anyone ever. This is perhaps the largest challenge one faces in life.

May this bring new meaning to all those who read it.


*** The original line in German is: “Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” I would translate this more as: “One who has their own “Why?” for living bears almost any “How?”.” Humorously enough, Nietzsche ends the phrase with a joke that only the English strive for happiness, which leaves me with many questions about how Nietzsche read Aristotle.

^^^ Interestingly, Sartre also talks about the sensation of what is felt when standing at a ledge over a fall (I believe inspired by writings by Kierkegaard rather than Nietzsche, however). He describes the sense that you have the potential to jump, that you could choose to leap to your death, as anguish.