[This discussion is the first of a three-part exploration of the human capacity for meaning-making. This article also continues a series I began in October, 2015. The series of articles as projected into the future will cover various themes that I explore with clients within the counseling framework I practice.]
I propose a conjecture: As human beings, we are meaning-making creatures. No doubt the effort exerted toward making meaning of one’s life varies among individuals. Some people give it much thought; some would rather not think about it at all. And then there are those who are haunted by the search for meaning throughout their existence. Whether one’s quest for personal meaning ranks high or low in one’s day-to-day existence, no doubt most people can point to something or someone in which they place much value: family and loved ones, work and career, ethical and moral living, spiritual beliefs and God, etc. Such experiences and values can and do provide some kind of meaning in and purpose for people’s lives. Within the existential framework I practice, exploration of personal meaning is an important theme that clients of all ages tend to engage. For some clients the search for meaning is a life-long process that for whatever reason they have sought to follow and hope to conquer. For many clients, the search for meaning is triggered by specific experiences they encounter in confronting life’s vicissitudes. Personally, I hold that meaning making is what makes us distinctively human.
A Variety of Themes
The approach I take to counseling is a philosophical one. Working within a general existential framework affords counselors a variety of themes on which to focus. Counselors who work within this perspective, not only vary in what each considers important themes, but also cannot obviously focus their practice in-depth on all the possible themes that existentialists and other philosophers explore. What tends to occur in practice is that different counselors choose areas of emphasis that interest them; consequently they focus their energy, reading and study efforts, and ways of working on those themes that tug at their own heart and soul for whatever reason. Rollo May stressed the role of anxiety in much of his work, and the courage to confront those struggles that produce anxiety – to face rather than avoid experiences that create anxiety. Irvin Yalom, particularly in his later works, focused on our finitude and coming to grips with the fact that we die. James Bugental centers his work on personal identity (who am I?) and living authentically. Emmy van Deurzen and followers of the British School frame their work from the perspective of the domains of existence: physical, social, personal, and spiritual, the latter dealing with meaning-making.
Our Search for Meaning
It was Viktor Frankl’s personal experiences that led him to emphasize in his work the need for making meaning in one’s life. Many therapists describe their work as challenging clients to make explicit the meaning they accord their lives. Likewise clients can embrace counseling to explore possible alternative meanings that can cast light on the various struggles they encounter. Many of us claim that we desire to live our lives in a way that holds meaning. Do we have what some existential thinkers call a why worth living? Might there be alternative sources of meaning in or for our lives? Counseling work that revolves around meaning might challenge clients to consider what feels right and what feels wrong in their world. Such feelings tend to revolve around what people value. Clients who engage such counseling work might explore what they value, and how they live out their values in their day-to-day lives. Such work folds into what some consider another existential them and exploration, clarifying values. I strongly believe that any counseling work that focuses on personal meaning-making cannot avoid discussions of what people value. Our personal values and deeply-held beliefs are bedrock foundations on which we construct our personal meanings for our lives. Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning, struck a deep cord with me that led me to work within an existential framework and to explore the various themes of existence, particularly meaning-making. Frankl’s work particularly focuses on suffering and meaning-making, and provides a conceptualization that much of the meaning we make in life comes through the struggles we face. Although most of us, thankfully, will not face the suffering Frankl encountered in Nazi concentration camps, his work and thought provides insights in how personal struggles can lead to deep personal meaning. Because I also come from a Christian perspective, his ideas about suffering and meaning resonate with me on a deep level.
This three-part series on human being’s capacity to make meaning in their lives through their personal experiences will unfold over the next few months, highlighting the work of Viktor Frankl, as well as others. More importantly, I hope the series will pique interests in those who might choose to engage counseling for the important work of exploring their personal meaning. As human beings, I believe we seek to make meaning regarding our existence. We operate off assumptions about what is meaningful to us, what is purposeful for us, and what is valuable and important to us. Those who enter counseling can explore their deeply held beliefs, core values, and the living out of what all these mean for them. I hope this three-part series on the Quest for Meaning leads people to explore what for them might be most important in their lives.
So stay tuned for the next couple of months . . .
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14, 2016
The greatest challenge to the West, especially Americans, is that we have an idea of standing and living for a cause that is greater than ourselves, but that does not require us to struggle or suffer. My experience has been that ongoing prayer and discussion of how to interact with Christians in churches around the world undergoing extreme threats and poverty, is unique, rather than common. I can only imagine that it is because we don’t ever like to consider that suffering has any long term role in redefining our own meaning and purpose of life, even though this is constantly taught by Christ to the early Christians under the harsh conditions in the Roman Empire.
Thanks, Doug, for checking out the blog and your comments. History is replete with those who discovered personal meaning via their struggles and suffering. Viktor Frankl, in the Nazi Concentration Camps, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the Gulag, are just two examples. Solzhenitsyn took the West to task for its loss of faith and its loss of distinction between good and evil. As one who writes from a business and economics perspective, as you do at Best Minds, you and I agree we’re most likely in for some tough, and perhaps, dark times ahead. From a Christian perspective, there are no promises that we’re immune to them.