Guest blog from Professor Mick Cooper on the search for meaning in life, the fact that there isn’t any and what that means, exactly.
Mick a Professor of Counselling Psychology, psychotherapist and author on pluralistic, existential, and relational therapies.
Imagine there’s a chandelier above your head. One of those long, dangly ones with branches of glass hanging down. It’s throwing light all around the room. Now imagine that you look at the base of the chandelier and realise that it’s not, actually, attached to the ceiling. It’s just hanging there, suspended in space. Right above your head.
Hold that image.
So this blog is about something I’ve struggled with for years and years and years and have found a way of conceptualising it that makes sense for me. It’s not a particularly upbeat or reassuring blog, so if you’re struggling with things and feeling low at the moment you may want to stop reading now.
The blog is about the notion that life is meaningless, and what that actually means. It’s a key tenet of a lot existential thought (though by no means all of it). Camus, for instance, writes about the ‘absurdity’ of existence; and Yalom, in his classic text on existential therapy, describes various therapeutic strategies that can be used to help clients address profound feelings of meaninglessness in life. But what does that ‘meaninglessness’ actually mean?
Here’s one way of describing it. The term ‘meaning’ can mean many different things. But when we speak about the ‘meaning’—or ‘meaninglessness’—of life, what we are asking about is its significance: the reason why it is there. It’s like, ‘What’s the meaning of work?’ or ‘What’s the meaning of going out every Friday night?’
We’re asking what those things are trying to achieve. Why we’re doing them: for instance, ‘to make money’, or ‘to make friends’.
From a ‘directional’ standpoint, this is about going up to a ‘higher order of direction’. That sounds horribly jargonistic but let me explain. It’s based on the directional framework that I’ve recently outlined in my book, ‘Integrating counselling and psychotherapy: Directionality, synergy, and social justice’ (Sage, 2019), which draws on the work of highly-respected theorists like Powers and Grawe.
So the directional framework says that we do things for reasons (i.e., we have directions in life), and we can trace those reasons up and up and up to higher and higher orders of directions. So, for instance, we go to work to make money, and we make money because we want to have leisure time, and we want to have leisure time because we want to have pleasure.
And we can also trace those directions downwards, and we do that by asking ‘how’? So, for instance, How do we get to work? We did training, and we got trained by turning up at college every day, etc. And then we could go back up the hierarchy from turning up at college to training to working to money to leisure to pleasure. From this standpoint, everything has a reason for it, and everything has a way that it’s done (right down to the very micro motor movements that help us make things happen in our lives).
And we can think of the whole thing like that dangly chandelier, with a few highest-order directions (like pleasure, or love, or actualisation of potential) right at the top, and then branching down to an increasing number of lower-order directions as the means to achieve them.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The thing is, we can go up and up and up to highest-order directions like pleasure but then, when we ask, ‘What is the meaning of pleasure?’ we’re stuck really. There just isn’t any answer.
Or ‘Why actualisation of potential?’ or ‘Why spirituality?’ They’re there, but there’s no real way of going above them to something higher order. One option might be to say that these directions contribute to a wider social direction, like global harmony or planetary healing but still, then, so what? What does that lead up to?
Essentially, there’s nothing ‘fixed’ up there. Nothing solid that we can hang the whole chandelier on. Nothing that can help us make sense of our lives and our worlds. And that’s why, sometimes, standing underneath it, we can feel that sense of dread that everything is about to come crashing down. That everything that shines light on everything is just an illusion and there no real meaning or purpose to any of it at all.
For Heidegger, these were moments of genuine insight and authenticity. When we see the world for exactly what it is. Baseless. Unattached. Dangling.
Of course, most of the time we’re not that focused on that chandelier. We’ve got things to do, getting on with our lives. And anyway, like Yalom’s Staring at the sun, there’s limits to how much we can look into that direct light.
Indeed, some people have probably never looked up at all. Or looked up and never seen that that base is unattached. But for others of us, even if we’re not looking up, there’s some constant awareness—sometimes better, sometimes worse—that something isn’t quite right. A sense of uncanniness. Unease. And for others of us, it’s like we’ve been born staring up and just can’t pull our eyes away.
Once you’ve seen how unattached things are, it’s something you can never forget.
Camus talks about building castles in the desert. We can create, and commit to, local meanings, even if there’s nothing ultimate solid that they lead up to. Similarly, Yalom writes about re-engagement with the world. But, personally, I think there’s just no way out of recognising that life is, ultimately, unattached to any fundamental meaning, and that’s just a really painful, dreadful ‘truth’ that many of have to live with.
Indeed, I think it blasts a fairly sizeable hole into all of our therapeutic practices, including existentialism and pluralism, because it means that a lot of our anxiety and sadness just can’t be ‘therapised’ away. However much CBT someone has, or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, the reality is that many of us live in the deeply unsettling, deeply ‘rational’ knowledge that there is no real, fundamental reason for anything we do.
At best, perhaps, talking about these things can help us feel that, at least, we are not alone with it—that’s there’s others there standing, staring up and feeling unsettled too. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s all about and felt despair at the apparent purposelessness of existence, at least know that I’m there as well, and so is Albert Camus, and perhaps many others: great and not-so-great minds alike.
And as Viktor Frankl put it, the great meaning-centred therapist, it can ‘never be taken as a manifestation of morbidity or abnormality’ to challenge the meaning of life. Rather, ‘it is the truest expression of the state of being human, the mark of the most human nature in man.’
This blog was first published here in July 2019.