Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lack of Meaning

Value:
Noun. Relative worth, merit, or importance; import or meaning; force; significance; liking or affection; favourable regard.

One of the more fascinating attributes we humans possess is the fickleness with which we assign value to things. When you were married, you probably had a pretty good idea about the value to you of your house, car, job, possessions, friends, spouse, even yourself. And then in an instant, it all changed. Now that your spouse is dead, does anything have the value to you that it once did? What would you give up to have your spouse back, if that were possible? Is there anything you wouldn't part with? Things you may have staked your entire career on, like a big house or car, can now seem almost meaningless. Overnight, your entire value system has likely undergone a major upheaval. And the aftermath can last for months and years.

I'm not real interested in the fast car or the big house. Never have been. Of far more interest to me is the value that we assign to our own lives, and to life itself. Several months after Deb died, I remember staring up at the ceiling one morning for 3 and a half hours with little thought other than "life is pointless." The meaning and value with which I had previously regarded life had all but vanished. But if life held no meaning, what was my place in it? What was the meaning of my life? Oh great, just a simple question like "what is the meaning of life?" My life. Or at least the one I now found myself living.

After Deb's death, this niggling meaning-of-life question would surface every now and then, adding to the sea of uncertainties in which I floundered. Did my life have meaning any more? What was that meaning? Hard, universal questions, and the only answer seemed to be, "the meaning you give it." It took me many hard, hard months of reassigning values to lesser things before I could even begin to conceive of the value I would give to my own life. Was I a father? Single dad? Friend? Co-worker? Naturalist? Idealist? Realist? Essentialist? None of these answers came quickly or easily.

The truth is, I have always been interested in the answers to these questions, and I still am, even though I am now at peace with both the questions and the answers. So it was with some interest that I read "Finding Meaning In the Second Half of Life" by Alexander Green. I'll just quote a few of the pertinent passages, but I encourage you to read the whole article. This will probably be more helpful to those of you who have already passed the one year mark and are beginning to grasp the need to reinvent yourself as a single person. There's lots of food for thought here...

Psychologists believe that roughly a quarter of Americans with symptoms of depression suffer from a chemical imbalance that, like diabetes, is most effectively treated with medication.

Others are experiencing a kind of reactive depression that is triggered by a serious reversal of some kind, an unexpected layoff, for example, or the sudden loss of a loved one. This form of depression can be severe but will ordinarily fade with time.

Yet, according to Dr. James Hollis of the C.J. Jung Educational Center in Houston, millions more suffer from a chronic melancholy that emanates from an entirely different source: a lack of meaning in their lives...

Many of them are haunted by the vague notion that something is missing in their lives. Often they can't put their finger on it. But it gnaws at them, creating fear, anxiety and, in some cases, depression...

But if meaning is missing, where can it be found? Some find the answer in their religious traditions. Others discover it by studying the world's wisdom literature, the great writings by history's wisest souls. Still others are fortunate enough to see it modeled by a parent, friend, or teacher, someone who is not merely living up to someone else's expectations but is instead busy living "an authentic life."

These men and women are too rare. And when they appear, society has a tendency to label them eccentric. As the poet T.S. Eliot once observed, in a world of fugitives, the person who is headed in the right direction will appear to be running away...

"Despite the blandishments of popular culture, the goal of life is not happiness but meaning," writes Dr. Hollis, author of "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

To determine whether you're on the right track, he suggests you ask yourself a simple question: "Does the path I'm on enlarge me or diminish me?" Your answer, he says, should be immediate and instinctive...

Living an authentic life is not an easy choice. The poet e.e. cummings said, "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."

So expect conflicts and hurdles. Setbacks, too. Finding creative solutions to these challenges fuels the mind with positive energy. It gives you the opportunity to show yourself - and those around you - how much you really want it.

And, in the process, it gives your life meaning.

Does the path I'm on enlarge me or diminish me? What a great question to ponder as we make our own road.

No comments: