We are searching today for many things. Whether it is connection, security, material wealth, or health and happiness, there appears to be a whole list of things that people believe will bring them some form of significance, recognition, and comfort. There also appears to be a desire to obviate the struggles inherent in living. We want those things that will enhance our personal nirvanas without having to get our hands dirty, experience some bumps and bruises, and perhaps go through some difficult times. I think these desires say something about human beings in that we basically have a longing within us for some type of personal meaning. Indeed, we are meaning-making creatures. Although at times we may not want to admit it, we long for something deep within us that will tell us that life is meaningful. We want to believe that this existence counts for something, that we’re not just merely here for a brief moment, and then gone like some meaningless vapor.
The Search for Meaning
One of the works that had the most impact on me when I was a student, and then later as a professional counselor, is Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. I believe as he proffered in that work that we human beings are meaning-making creatures, regardless of how actively aware our search for meaning may be. Given that belief, some years back I began my private counseling practice that I call Contemplations. I sought to provide time and space for people to enter counseling so that they could explore what is valuable in life for them. More importantly, upon discovering what is valuable to them, how could they go about living out the values they claim to embrace? Obviously, such searching is never done once and for all in this life, but is indeed a life-long process full of sinuous paths that twist and turn in various directions with hills and dales along the way. One’s search for meaning in life is a quest that speaks to our being human. Our search is for something that speaks to our core that tells who we are and what we’re all about. What are some characteristics of this search?
An important realization about our search for meaning is that it addresses all facets of life. There’s not one big M (Meaning) that ends the search for everyone. Meaning and purpose are what drive us to face and live through each day. For many people such a drive may be found in their work. Many artists and entrepreneurs would claim that their work and creativity give them purpose to continue on each day. Others may find such purpose in connection and family. Still others may find such value in serving other people in some way. Some search for the meaning in some form of spirituality. Then others may find a meaningful and fulfillment existence in striking a balance in all the above – work, family, service, and spirituality. Some individuals believe that spirituality is what allows them to strike such a balance. Whatever it is that gives people meaning and purpose, it is that thing that allows them to face existence day-in-and-day-out. It allows them to face the challenges that come their way that may lead them to question their values and what they believe to be meaningful.
The Struggle for Existence
A second characteristic of our search is that it will involve struggles, questions, and doubts. If something is worth pursuing to a meaningful level, it will not all the time come easy. Existence and the experiences it entails have a way of testing what we truly value and desire in life. Values are formed through the tests of fire. We may find through particular experiences that we actually value something different than we originally believed. Likewise, we are faced with the question through the fire of experience whether or not we’re willing to pay the costs to carve out the life we believe to be meaningful. These struggles are the very things that lead many people to give up their search and live what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation. The thing I’m not saying is that we should purposely search for difficulties, struggles, and pain in our lives. That’s called masochism. Life has a way of bringing about enough struggles without our having to look for them or create them. People’s struggles also vary from individual to individual. We all have our own level of difficulties and what they produce in our lives. The key thing to understand is that if we want something that is meaningful on a deep level to us, it will require something more than smooth sailing.
The Search for Meaning is Individual
The notion of individualism today is chock full of baggage, misunderstanding, and political correctness. We are all connected to others, and we have been since we were brought into existence via a family, society, and culture. Regardless, our search for meaning is something we must carry out individually, even if it entails how we hope to relate to others. For example, if one finds meaning in family or serving others, that person doesn’t lose who he or she is in the process. Indeed, following out what one believes to be meaningful enhances rather than annihilates one’s personal identity. No other human being can give you your meaning or create your life for you. For sure, we seek out those whom we believe to be wise and from whom we can garner understanding and wisdom. Ultimately however, individually we must decide our life’s path and follow it.
A Note on Spirituality
As a Christian, I believe that I will find my ultimate meaning in my relationship with the Triune God. Not everyone will agree with me here, but it is my personal belief. Some may ask if I’m not just looking for another form of the big M. In saying that my personal meaning is found in my relationship with God, that entails the way I am to live from day-to-day. From the Christian perspective, we call such daily living our sanctification, by which we seek to become conformed to the image of Christ. Like any search and hope, this involves daily living with struggles that challenge our faith, make us question things, and even doubt things about our faith. Such a relationship with God also entails a calling. Work, family, and service of some kind are all inherent in a personal calling, one that each of us must search out for him- or herself. Just as no one can give me meaning, no other person can have faith for me. My faith falls within my calling and personal relationship with God.
Not everyone will agree with me regarding my spiritual beliefs as a Christian. My private practice is open to all. Contemplations is a space where anyone who desires can take the time to explore what they truly value – what is purposeful and meaningful for them. I deeply believe that we are meaning-making creatures. The struggles that life throws at us will make us question a lot of things. Life’s experiences will lead us to question our very act of making meaning. The depth of living comes at the risk of pursuing what we claim to value so as to live the way we hope to live, finding our meaning in the day-to-day battles and blessings of life.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14th, 2019