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Meaning and purpose are really important to lots of millennials. What is the purpose of our lives? What is the meaning of climate change, environmental degradation, the various conflicts in different parts of the world, and the rising inequality amongst people here? These questions can lead to intense feelings of anxiety and sadness.
After World War II, a number of philosophers and mental health therapists began considering the meaning of the horrendous acts that were committed.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned during World War II. In a previous blog, I wrote about his search for meaning during this time and how we might be able to find meaning when we’re depressed.
Frankl developed logotherapy after his time in concentration camps recognizing that even during the most miserable suffering imaginable, we are driven to find meaning and can find it. It is definitely not easy, but we can find it.
Existential psychology was also developed after the war. Meaning and choice or the responsibility to find meaning were important ideas in this approach. It too stressed that during suffering it is up to us to find meaning and purpose.
Existentialism talks about four givens in life: freedom and responsibility, death, isolation, and meaninglessness. These are areas we must all learn to grapple with, or not. It is up to each of us to figure out how we’re going to do that.
Some people, including millennials, are questioning the meaning or purpose of our lives. How can we find meaning and purpose in environmental issues, war and conflict, or economic disparity?
Both these approaches emphasize that it’s up to each of us to find meaning on a broader or more moment-to-moment basis. Through challenging ourselves, our assumptions, our own responsibility to create meaning, we can find purpose. Is it easy? No. Is it important? Most definitely, especially now!
The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism – and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. ―Stanley Kubrick