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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.

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The Five Life-Stages of Happiness: How Our Definition of Contentment Changes Over the Course of Our Lifetime

“Our meaning of happiness is constantly shaped and reshaped by small choices we make every day.”

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” 25-year-old George Eliot wrote in an 1844 letter to a friend. But rather than directed at a static end goal, this learning is a dynamic recalibration of our very definition of happiness as we move through different life-stages. “Human beings,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert observed a century and a half after Eliot as he contemplated our illusory understanding of happiness, “are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

The evolving conception of happiness over the human lifetime is what Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Aaker and her team study in order to help us better calibrate what we believe makes us happy to what actually makes us happy. In this animated short film for the Future of Storytelling Summit — which also gave us Margaret Atwood on how technology shapes storytelling — Aaker outlines how the primary definition of happiness shifts in five systematic stages over time: discovery during childhood and adolescence, pursuit in our mid-twenties, balance in our late twenties and early thirties, meaning in our late thirties and forties, and savoring from our fifties on. But these chapters, Aaker illustrates through her team’s studies, need not be linear or sequential — different life-experiences help us reorder and edit them.

Our meaning of happiness is constantly shaped and reshaped by small choices we make every day.

Complement with Rebecca Goldstein on the continuity of personhood over time, Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and these seven essential books about the art-science of happiness.

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The Mountain View of the Mind: Simone Weil on the Purest and Most Fertile Form of Thought

“Our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.”

Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) is both among the twentieth century’s most magnificent minds and its greatest cultural oddities. Born into a family of nonreligious, freethinking Jews from the French bourgeoisie, she became a philosopher — placing first in France’s competitive national university entrance exam, with Simone de Beauvoir placing second — and got involved in radical left-wing politics. She advocated for worker rights, labored incognito in a car factory for more than a year to better understand the reality of her working-class compatriots, and even served in the anarchist militia during the Spanish Civil War.

Then, in her mid-twenties, Weil experienced something akin to Philip K. Dick’s famous exegesis — a hallucinatory mystical experience that turned her toward spirituality. Due to the tragedy of her early death — itself an act of modern sainthood — her work penetrated the world only posthumously, but it went on to influence such intellectual titans as Susan Sontag and Albert Camus. The latter famously declared Weil “the only great spirit of our times.”

Even for those of us who identify as nonbelievers and disagree with her theological ideas, Weil’s Waiting for God (public library) is a masterwork of human thought — her philosophical investigations and the intellectual elegance with which she delivers them are immeasurably rewarding in their own right.

In one particularly piercing passage, she considers the art of thought in its purest, most elevated, and most fertile form:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of that though, but on a lower level and not in contact with, the diverse knowledge we have acquired, which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts, as a man on a mountain, who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Waiting for God is a powerful read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with John Dewey on how to think, then revisit Weil on attention and grace, science and our spiritual values, making use of our suffering, the true measure of genius, and how to be a complete human being.

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