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Uncertainty and Our Search for Meaning: Legendary Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom on How We Glean Our Sense of Purpose

“The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it.”

“The sole purpose of human existence,” Carl Jung wrote in his notebooks, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” In a universe devoid of purpose in the human sense, in which we are but a cosmic accident, the darkness of mere being can easily overwhelm us — and yet we go on striking the match of meaning. “However vast the darkness,” Stanley Kubrick urged in a 1968 interview, “we must supply our own light.”

How we supply that light is what the great existential psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom (b. June 13, 1931) explores in a portion of the wholly illuminating 1989 classic Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (public library).

Yalom has done for psychotherapy what Oliver Sacks has done for neurology, using case studies as a storytelling springboard for contemplating some of the largest and most perennial human questions. Through the stories of ten patients, he examines what the four main aspects of psychotherapy — the inevitability of death, the freedom to shape our own lives, our ultimate aloneness, and the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

The last of the four, which Yalom considers the existential human dilemma of “a being who searches for meaning and certainty in a universe that has neither,” is both the most elusive and the most fertile, for embedded in it are the other three. He writes:

If death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, if the world is contingent (that is, everything could as well have been otherwise), if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life? … We are meaning-seeking creatures. Biologically, our nervous systems are organized in such a way that the brain automatically clusters incoming stimuli into configurations. Meaning also provides a sense of mastery: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them. Even more important, meaning gives birth to values and, hence, to a code of behavior: thus the answer to why questions (Why do I live?) supplies an answer to how questions (How do I live?).

Art from a vintage children’s-book adaptation of Voltaire’s philosophical homage to Newton and the human condition. Click image for more.

Indeed, humanity’s entire history of contemplating how to live is rooted in this question of meaning. And yet Yalom argues that we can only search for meaning indirectly. In a sentiment that calls to mind Virginia Woolf on the paradox of writing about the soul, he asserts:

The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from ‘The Well of Being.’ Click image for more.

In both therapy and life, this sidewise gleam of meaning requires cultivating a comfort level with uncertainty and continually asking what Hannah Arendt so memorably termed the “unanswerable questions” that make us human; it then requires that, to paraphrase Rilke’s immortal words, we live those questions. Yalom writes:

The capacity to tolerate uncertainty is a prerequisite… The powerful temptation to achieve certainty through embracing an ideological school and a tight therapeutic system is treacherous: such belief may block the uncertain and spontaneous encounter necessary for effective therapy.


I must assume that knowing is better than not knowing, venturing than not venturing; and that magic and illusion, however rich, however alluring, ultimately weaken the human spirit.

How to dispel those illusions and strengthen the human spirit through meaningful uncertainty is what Yalom explores in the remainder of the altogether revelatory Love’s Executioner. Complement this particular focal point with Parker Palmer on how to discern your purpose, Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

Published September 28, 2015




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