Episode 12: One Meaning Casualty
Today’s is the third episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, we look at what happens when life loses its meaning and a meaning crisis is precipitated.
Today’s is the third episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called “One Meaning Casualty,” we look at what happens when life loses its meaning and a meaning crisis is precipitated. Let’s begin!
Meaning is our territory and casualties on the battlefield of meaning are our subjects. Depression in creative people is essentially a meaning problem and must be handled by a meaning expert: you. Your job isn’t to find one particular meaning and adopt it as your way of life but rather to learn about the vagaries of meaning, about how meaning comes and goes, about what sustains meaning and why meaning sometimes vanishes. Then, when you feel yourself becoming depressed, you will know to say, “Must be a meaning crisis!” You will know what to do next to plug up the hole through which meaning is escaping. Even the greatest meaning expert can’t keep meaning from leaking out and draining away sometimes, but you can learn how to restore meaning and recover from meaning crises.
Consider Barry. Barry is thirty-seven, was married for a few years and currently lives alone, has at times smoked a lot of marijuana, and for more than a decade marginally survived on the interest from savings left to him by his parents. In his twenties, Barry wrote three novels that were never published. Then, at thirty-four, he had a novel published that became a bestseller. His life changed: he became seriously depressed.
He spent the year after the publication of his novel publicizing it and gearing up to write its sequel. But no sequel visited him. Serious and self-respectful enough to know not to embark on a meaningless new novel just because he was a hot commodity, he nevertheless felt intense pressure to come up with a sequel and to “strike while the iron was hot.” But a year passed and then another without a good idea for a novel arriving.
Barry had been periodically depressed before his bestseller but now he found himself suffering from the worst depression of his life, one that was practically paralyzing. To the casual outsider, including an unwary therapist, it looked like Barry must be having psychological problems. Did he “fear success”? Did his success and the subsequent striving for an even bigger hit trigger a latent biochemical major depression? These are a few of the reasons Barry would have heard proffered by professionals as to why he was seriously depressed.
The fact of the matter is that Barry finds himself in the grip of a profound meaning crisis precipitated by two events, writing a bestseller and struggling with his bestseller’s sequel. It is a meaning crisis on several scores. First, as long as possesses no idea for his sequel, he is bereft of meaning. He can go through the motions of living, he can order Chinese food, chat at the cafe with acquaintances, watch the evening news, and so on, but the absence of an idea for his sequel is the defining fact of his existence. He “ought to be writing his sequel” but no sequel is there yet, and its absence is a meaning killer.
He can force something out and manage to write each day, and indeed on some days he does exactly that, starting one novel, writing a few pages, then abandoning it. But these false starts and appropriate stops wear him out. Rather than providing him with occasional meaning--meaning for a day, as it were--they underscore the fact that no meaning currently attaches to his life. He is aware that his ideas for a sequel are second-rate and that he is writing just to be doing something, which makes the experience of writing meaningless.
Second, he has learned the impressive, disconcerting lesson that having a novel published and soar to the top of the bestseller lists does not settle any meaning questions. All his life, up to the point of his success, he supposed that something would change with success. He wasn’t naive enough to imagine that life would become a bed of roses, but he supposed that with success would come some ease. Then he would be able to exorcise a few demons and feel better about himself and the facts of existence. In short, he imagined that writing a bestseller would prove a positive existential landmark.
Exactly the opposite happened. He found that his meaning problems doubled or tripled, not halved. With success came a new, deeper doubt that any activity, even his cherished writing, could make life mean anything. From this dark doubt flowed anhedonia, which he now suffered from for the first time in his life. Previously writing gave him pleasure, revising gave him pleasure, many aspects of his life gave him pleasure. Now nothing gives him pleasure, not fan letters, accolades, and certainly not his writing, which is currently “all wrong.” His success, which he had dreamed of but whose reality is a meager thing, has produced the bizarre result of removing all pleasure from his life.
Barry’s meaning crisis has these two faces. First, he possesses no current meaning while he waits for a sequel to make itself known to him. Second, he has learned the terrible lesson that his meaning problems will not end with success and instead have taken on a new, implacable face. A third meaning crisis is that the very nature of meaning appears to have changed. The good meaning he had hoped to make and which he perhaps did make in his successful novel is no longer enough. Now, with expectations on him that he write at the same level or higher, he is obliged to make “even greater meaning.” The meaning bar has shifted higher and he faces his personal variation of the question Tolstoi had to answer and never could: “What is an adequate sequel to War and Peace?”
What was previously meaningful, to simply write, no longer is. Now he can only think of the activity of writing as “writing for the critics,” “writing for posterity,” “writing impressively,” “writing an important sequel,” “writing mistake-free and mess-free,” “writing for his many fans,” and so on. Before, the act of creation made sufficient sense. Now, only the act of creating something worthy and wanted makes sense, which is such a change in his meaning field that no sentence that he writes, however fine or refined, passes muster. He requires a sequel in order for meaning to be restored but, ironically, he has less chance than before of writing well, now that his meaning field has been drastically altered by success.
Fourth, he finds himself attacked by waves of guilt and doubt about the path he has chosen to travel, that of an isolated, alienated writer. Previously his path and his creed made sense: “I am a witness, a truth-teller, an artist.” He could forgive himself his failures at relationships and his shortfalls as a person by arguing that his art had to come first, that he was destined to write and was put on earth to create, not to relate. Now that formulation makes less sense, since he sees exactly what success means, does, and brings. Perhaps he should have lived differently, loved more, tried harder to make friends and be a friend. Thoughts of this sort now plague Barry.
What could be odder than to not doubt your path while you were experiencing no particular success and then doubt it as soon as a great success hits? How upside-down that sounds! Yet isn’t the experienced cleric more prone to doubt than the seminary student, the experienced therapist more prone to doubt that the intern, the experienced professional in any field more prone to despair and lose meaning than the innocent who still believes? This is Barry’s situation. Now he knows about publicists, interviewers, regional marketing managers, and everything else that exists behind the veil. This knowledge brings with it a giant doubt about the true value of his path.
Fifth, and worst of all, the quality of his seconds has changed. Before, when he finished writing for the day, and even if what he produced was poor or skimpy, he could move on to the rest of his day and find meaning in his next activities. He could read a novel, sit in a cafe, get excited about a woman. The 3600 seconds he spent over a beer in his local cafe were fine seconds, full of the simple meaning that human beings experience when they sit among their fellow human beings in cafes. Formerly that hour constituted no meaning problem, even though he was not actively making meaning.
Now he can hardly sit still. Suddenly--and horribly--what used to feel fine as a way of passing the time between episodes of real meaning-making now feels meaningless. Since he is not writing, since he is not sure that he wants to write, and since he no longer knows what path he ought to follow, all his seconds are colored by his discontent and malaise. His meaning problems have made him manic and he finds himself in a strange rush, pressured to get from the cafe back to his apartment, pressured, as soon as he gets back to his apartment, to go out again.
This restlessness, as he runs from one place to the next, looking for meaning but experiencing only a meaning vacuum, continues while he sleeps. Barry has become insomniac. To a therapist, his insomnia is a classic symptom of his depression. To a meaning expert, his insomnia is the natural result of his current meaning crisis, as the anxiety of meaning gone missing pesters him day and night and prevents him from resting. Though insomniac, he also sleeps for long stretches during the day. Sometimes he dozes off at ten in the morning and sleeps until four in the afternoon. To a therapist, his hypersomnia is another symptom of depression. To a meaning expert, his hypersomnia is an escape from the experience of meaninglessness.
The situation I’ve been describing is utterly typical: a creative person is confronted by meaning problems that escalate into a meaning crisis and precipitate depression. However, as typical as this situation is, it hasn’t been named or examined before. Standard procedure is to deem Barry ill. He has mental problems, the disease of depression, and so on. Of course Barry is depressed. But what he is suffering from is a terrible crisis of meaning. He is a casualty on the battlefield of meaning and the answers he must look for are in that direction: in the direction of understanding how a person who has lost meaning can—and must—regain it.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for another episode in the “How Purpose Heals Depression” series. To learn more about this subject, please take a look at my book The Van Gogh Blues, which just appeared in paperback from New World Library. To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!