Again, we come back to the problem of the meaning of life. I don’t think there will ever be an answer to the eternal question. There is abundant scholarship on it, too much to be condensed into a single advice column. The despair that comes from the absurdity of living has probably been present since the first humans became aware of themselves.
But there are paths open to us beyond nihilism. This week, we explore some of the ways that one might find value in life even without believing in a higher power, or that there’s a meaning to it all.
This may be a bit too general for your advice column, but I figured I’d ask anyway. I’m struggling with finding motivation when I feel like the world has no meaning. I don’t believe in a higher power at all, and I believe there is no real reason that we are here. It should be a freeing feeling in the fact that I can assign significance to what I deem important, but I have a hard time getting that concept to click. The feeling that life has no meaning makes it much harder to get the motivation to push on in doing things like running, reading for my classes, etc. I see a therapist once a week and we work on it, but I was wondering if you have any advice on coping with this on a day-to-day basis?
I’ve answered this a few times already, but there’s no harm in going again.
This is one of the longest-running questions in human history. You have a pretty nihilistic view on life and its lack of meaning, and you seem to have fallen into the hole of despair. It might be time to read Nietzsche, who deals with this same problem, and go forward from there.
But I don’t think that one needs to become someone who can create their own values by force of will. I especially don’t believe that any human being could bear such responsibility, which I think is one of the foundations for your unhappiness. It’s too much to be the one who assigns significance to the world. You don’t have to believe in God, but you also don’t have to replace him with yourself.
I think Sarte’s “existence precedes essence” — the idea that “self-making-in-a-situation,” and Heidegger’s refinement, that a human is an entity whose essence is “precisely to be and nothing but to be” — is a good starting point towards solving the problem of greater meaning.
I have some frustration with the problem of meaning and how we tend to think about it. When we speak about meaning, we seem to be searching for a grand destination, so we can determine what are the useful actions of life, and what about the way we live is useless. Life becomes a matter of wanting to win the game of it.
That’s such a diseased way of thinking about the meaning of life. We fall into despair when we don’t reach the stage of victory for some definition of what it means to be a man, a woman, a writer, a lover, a person, and so on. I know that life must have its limits, and we have to create a framework for the type of people that we want to be. But it seems that rather than accepting the dynamism of life and ourselves as individuals, we want to make a straightforward job of it all. And that’s just so boring.
I think what you need to do, first, is try to understand that life and people are valuable by nature of their existence, rather than things to be assigned value. Bestowing value on aspects of life will inevitably lead you into determining what is useful or not, and who is useful or not, which will lead to what is productive and what is not.
One of my favorite things about grand myths is that trees are sacred in most of them. The stories always seem to start with a great tree: égig érő fa, Ağaç Ana, Modun, Yggdrasil, Iroko, Jianmu, and so on. We are not trees, but I like what trees say about life. Trees just exist, and are valuable just by being so. Yes, trees give out oxygen and are important to humans in that regard, as they are important to wildlife by providing shelter. They might even be chopped down to be used to build things. There’s so much you can do with a tree. You can even build the myth of a people around them. But all of those values are extraneous. A tree grows because a tree is planted, and exists within the ecosystem of the world, where each individual tree is essential to maintaining life while at the same time nearly inconsequential in a grand sense. A tree doesn’t grow for any purpose. It just grows to be a tree. That is its value. The rest comes after.
So I would say there’s no need to assign significance to things. You’re not trying to win at life. Things in life are valuable because they are part of life. Even if life has no grand meaning, that value doesn’t evaporate. Rather than try to give meaning to things, it might be time to think of the things that you enjoy the most. Then of course, you can determine what kind of life you want to live, and build towards that. Hopefully you can also allow yourself room for failure and confusion, because existence is hard and we’re all stumbling through it.
How does one escape the isolation, loneliness and depression that comes with being a job seeker?
I quit a job once, and rather than find a new one right away, I chose to remain unemployed. I wanted to break the mindset that my job constituted who I am, and the anxiety of feeling useless if most of your time isn’t put into some form of labor.
I’m not saying that working isn’t important and can’t be a route to happiness, but it felt unhealthy that it was so central to my idea of self.
During that unemployment period, I did all the things that I have always loved but couldn’t do when I was working so much. I started becoming the ideal version of myself that I always said I would try to be if I had more time and more energy. I wrote every day. I went to museums. I read a lot. I walked by the water. I ate too much ice cream. Traveled a bit. I just had to yank my self-worth away from my productivity in the professional world, which seems to be at the heart of so many bad feelings about not having a job.
Job searches are definitely lonely and depressing endeavors, but I would advise you to spend whatever time you have between jobs doing the things that make you happy. Create, or work towards your non-professional identity.
How’s the story writing going?
This is aggressive. Please refrain from attacking me like this in the future. I’m an artist. What matters is not how things are “going” or how far along I am, but the quality of the work at the end. Whenever that end may be.