Episode 13: Forcing Life to Mean
Today’s is the fourth 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 examine the idea that depression lifts when we “force life to mean.”
Today’s is the fourth 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 “Forcing Life to Mean,” we examine the idea that our depression lifts when we make the radical decision to impose meaning on life. Let’s begin!
To heal your depression you must force life to mean. You force life to mean by sitting yourself down and deciding what you want your life to signify. When you are satisfied with your answer, and if you have been truthful with yourself, you will have stripped away false meanings and motives and arrived at your best understanding of how you intend to shape your life. By providing yourself with personal reasons for taking your own life seriously, you begin to build a shield against meaninglessness.
These reasons must be personal. The hunt for ultimate reasons, reasons delivered from on high, will prove a waste of time, even for believers, since we are built to dispute anything, even putative pronouncements from gods. No ultimate reason takes precedence over our own righteous understanding of what constitutes the next right thing for us to do. If the laws of the universe are not directly within us, where are they? If they are within us, what could make them more purely or more powerfully manifest than living according to our own best reasons for living?
You must tap into your ethical self and construct your personal creed, so that the reasons you arrive at encompass your principles as well as your desires. Why shouldn’t you force life to mean that you get expensive cars and two homes or that you study whatever you like, even if your research harms others? Because you know better. Why become a saint or even a decent person, since so many crooks do beautifully in business, politics, and everywhere? Because you have higher standards than that. You know that if you go with your shadows and your desires and not with your principles you are bound to experience the emptiness that comes with denying your conscience.
To find your path, you begin with a core question like
“How can I force my life to have meaning?”, “What is at the center of a creed I might live by?” or “What is my truth?” You have a fireside chat with yourself with a question of this sort as your starting point. Remember that the question you ask yourself should not be an abstract question like, “What is the meaning of life?” In that direction is idle metaphysical speculation. Rather, you create a question that is a variation of “What do I want my life to mean?” or “How do I choose to live?” What you are really asking is the more elaborate question: “Given my limited understanding of the nature of the universe, how shall I organize what I believe to be true into a personal creed that provides me with a sturdy rationale for living?”
Barry, the writer facing a severe existential crisis and resultant depression whom we met in last week’s episode, embarked on this conversation and chose as his starting point the question, “On what core operating principles can I base a meaningful life?” As he thought about this question he was surprised to realize that writing hadn’t actually lost any of its former luster or importance. It was still the place where he intended to make meaning, the place where he could be most human, articulate, and alive. But he began to see that he also had to force the rest of his life to mean and he had to do so in ways compatible with his core principles. But what exactly were those core principles? The question made him a little light-headed but he managed to jot down a few notes.
At the end of the process he came to the following realizations: that he could aim to do excellent work and live a life devoted to doing excellent work, just so long as he remembered that many projects might fail miserably; that he had to change his minute-to-minute attitude to a more philosophical one and reduce some of the pressure he regularly put on himself; and that he had to decide to be less frightened by meaninglessness when it hit and, tied to that idea, that he had to work to restore meaning the second that he noticed meaning draining out of his life.
At this point Barry stopped because something odd struck him. He noticed that was feeling calm and not, as he has felt so often recently, manic and hysterical. It occurred to him that he had been fleeing from some danger or chasing some elusive salvation ever since his first novel became a bestseller. He couldn’t say for sure if the mania and depression he had been feeling was an expression of his genes or the working out of his meaning issues, but he senses that his sudden calmness was real and a genuine positive—that it was a calmness very different from emptiness, entirely different, for instance, from the terrible calmness that Vincent Van Gogh described in the days before his suicide. It was a calmness that had arrived because, for the first time, he had looked his meaning issues squarely in the eye.
Barry had arrived at a starting point. While it was only a starting point, it was a significant moment. It is likewise a significant moment in any creator’s life to quiet his nerves, look questions of meaning in the eye, and begin to articulate a personal creed that will help him negotiate meaning crises. In future shows we’ll examine other elements of a creator’s plan that combine to armor him in his battle against meaninglessness. But the first task is to stop everything, announce in the mirror to a reluctant self that you are embarking on an investigation of meaning, pose a provocative first question, and stay put as you try to answer your own question.
Now it’s your turn. Calm your nerves a little and begin to engage in self-reflection. Ask yourself a single large question about the meaning of your life: what you want to stand for, what you want to embody, what you want your life to mean. Gingerly arrive at your real intentions. Discard the easy answers, the ones supplied by your ego, your culture, your parents, or your mythology. Discard incomplete answers like “I just need to paint” and “All I need to do is write.” The answer you are searching for embodies your principles and your goals and is burning red hot, just beneath the surface of your consciousness, like lava beneath the earth’s crust. Begin this scorching and liberating investigation right now.
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!