The Little Question with Big Answers: Developing Meaning in Life.
In life, we face multiple challenges. Not only are we surrounded by a barrage of day to day stresses, many of which are situational and not major problems, but also, at times our day to day mood can derail us from creating the meaning in life we wish to achieve. What is the meaning of life? This question, although small in nature, seems almost too big to grasp as we battle to make sense of what our life will ultimately become.
To make meaning in life is difficult. While it is a driving force behind our psychological, physiological, and spiritual growth throughout life, it nevertheless remains an elusive opponent, seemingly able to slip through our grasp at every opportunity we sit down to take the moral inventory needed to assure personal development. This little question that has so many big answers underlies the existential angst behind many of the day to day problems we face in life, and can even develop into psychological symptoms if left unexplored. While difficult to grasp, some insight into this problem is shown by psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson (1963), who shed light on the ways these small questions drive our developmental journey towards ego-integrity.
Psychoanalysis has long studied the developmental course associated with normal and pathological development. While many schools of thought arose within psychoanalysis itself, including the psychosexual, psychosocial, and self-psychological, psychoanalysis proper also splintered into other traditions. These include analytical psychology (Jung) and archetypal psychology (Hillman). Other philosophical tenets such as mythopoetic models of thought (Exploring development from a mythical perspective, eg. Hillman and Bly) alost strive to help people make sense of their lifelong journey to understand themselves. While there seems to be many theories that study ways to answer the little question with big answers, the answer is not easily identifiable or replicable amongst the numerous people who strive to make sense of their life. Instead, it’s answer is as uniquely individual as the person who asks the question: Who am I?
This yearning to know ourselves begins post-childhood during the torrential years of adolescent development. The existential angst pre-adolescents and adolescents so readily display in order to individuate creates the driving force behind identity development. Go to any junior high or high school, and see the individuality that teenagers wear as their hair styles, on their head, on their clothes, etc. However, is it true individuality that you see. In the case of adolescent identity development, it is definitely not.
Adolescence is a time of self-exploration. In most cases, teens are afforded the opportunity to explore their newly emerging identity within the context of a family home, which provides them the stable ground needed to make sense of who they are becoming. Maples (2011) showed that adolescence is a time when children can experiment with their newly formed adult capacities, while reaping the benefits of safety, food, shelter, and love their parent’s home provides them. While not independent by any means, the adolescent is nevertheless experimenting with their individuality, learning ways to function and adapt within the greater social context of the adult world. This stage differs greatly from the complete dependence children have on their parent.
Adolescents strive to make sense of their forming adult identity. This makes it the starting point from which all other adult development begins. However, the adolescent’s developing psyche has yet to attain the experience and psychological maturity needed to see themselves beyond the single identity they form to set themselves apart from the one’s the seek to individuate from. Adolescent’s literally pigeon hole themselves in the identity and single handed perspective they create, a decision that oftentimes takes years to work through as they mature to a point where they can let go of that identity in order to mature into a state capable of making greater meaning about the life.
As we mature, so do the questions we ask. As we make sense of our individual identity, we also develop the ability to share that identity with others. This prompts the developmental task of intimacy v. isolation (Erikson, 1963). When we assume that we find the right person, we take the plunge into love’s uncharted territories, and commit to spend an undefined amount of time with a person, while oftentimes not even being psychologically prepared to commit to a life plan for more than five years. Our yearning for love drives momentary lapses of rationality, as our defenses drop and we begin to engage life from the perspective of rose colored glasses love affords us. We commit without knowing, and then assume the responsibility and work needed to make sense of the journey we assume for ourselves and the other we committed to when we simply said the words, “I do.” While beautiful in its creative capacity to give life purpose, after the rose colored glasses begin to fade, we are faced with the real work of getting to know ourselves individually, as it relates to the responsibility of having one or more people in our life dependent on the decisions we make.
In adult relationships, we are provided a mirror to see our good and bad qualities. While important for many reasons (creation, reflection, curbing our global sense of loneliness), relationships also point out just how much individual work is needed to make meaning of life. An intimate partner or spouse cannot prompt your journey to make meaning in your life forward. Your relationship, at best, can act in support of the individual journey you undertake to make personal meaning for your life. If it does not, your journey of personal development will simply outweigh the relationship’s capacity to support you, or your partner / spouse’s individuated growth.
In order to understand how we form identity throughout the lifespan, it is important to undertake your own self-reflection. This can be done independently, or with the help of others. Therapists, counselors, psychologists, priests, clergy, elders, or people that have been through the experiences you have difficulties with are all good sources that can help you navigate the waters of developing an individuated sense of self knowledge. Friends are great for day to day advise, but in the journey to make meaning of life, they oftentimes are as wrapped up on their own day to day stresses to be an effective advisor for the self-promotion and realization you need to make sense of life. While professionals are a great source of information and can help you engage in exercises that promote self knowledge, there are some steps you can do before your first meeting.
- Journal – Keep an ongoing journal of self reflection. Your growth is dynamic, not stationary. If you have a bad day, it will not be your last. Nor will it doom you to a life of bad days. By journaling you keep an objective record of your life experience. This source of information is invaluable for the professional you chose to work with in order to help you make sense of the things that get in the way for you to make meaning in your life.
- Take Inventory of Your Past – We are all products of our past. There is a joke in psychology, “if it is not one thing, it’s a mother,” or, “the closer to the truth you get, the father and father away you are.” With all joking aside, we are products of our past, and whether we deem our childhood as being good or bad, we can all learn valuable lessons from it. Whether we have good experiences or bad, we can utilize these experiences to repeat the good lessons we learned in life while we can throw away the lessons we thought not to be so great. By taking inventory of your past, you come to a perspective of the here and now, which allows you to begin dreaming life forward again.
- Engage in self-exploration exercises – Meditation is great. Yoga is great. Look at life from the perspective of a grand social experiment. Try new things. If you like doing something, repeat until happy. If something does not elicit happiness, throw it away and move onto the next experiment. Your life happens in the here and the now. It is too damn serious to take seriously, and too damn short to waste your time focusing on things that do not elicit the good feelings that promote self growth.
- Develop a 5 year goal, and work backwards from it to set up the next five years of your life plan. If you plan on living for the next five years, where do you want to be at that time. DREAM, and DREAM BIG. Develop a plan of action, which can include going back to school, interviewing for that dream job, opening your own business, being the best mother / father you can be to your children, or making a million dollars. If the future is there, engage it; don’t just sit around and let it engage you. It will engage you, whether you actively participate in its course or not; you might as well benefit from it, right? Dream, Plan, Learn How, Implement, Receive, Be Grateful.
- Affirm your successes, and learn from your failures. There are no failures in life, just opportunities to learn ways not to do something. This is how we make meaning in life. If we orient ourselves to the past, we lock ourselves in the failures and successes that no longer have meaning to our present day situation. Life drives forward, regardless if we want it too or not.
To make meaning in life takes a lifetime to accomplish. There is no right or wrong answer. What is deemed horrible now, will not have the same effects on us later in life. Likewise, what we find meaningful now, may not be the case for us as we continue on our maturation journey. In life, we simply live and make meaning of the experiences we create. There is no prewritten plan, besides the life and death journey we are all subject to anyways. It is the storylines we create, that afford us meaning at the time we are engaged in those endeavors. Everyone has the capacity to write and re-write their destiny. How do you want your story-line to read?
Maples, T.C. (2011). Siddhartha, a hermeneutic analysis of the individuation process. Proquest.
Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and society. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.