Episode 14: The Pain of Not Mattering
Today’s is the fifth 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 why the feeling that our efforts do not matter causes us to lose our sense of purpose.
Today’s is the fifth 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 “The Pain of Not Mattering,” we look at why the feeling that our efforts do not matter causes us to lose our sense of purpose. Let’s begin!
It would seem self-evident that a person would decide to opt to matter. Why wouldn’t she? Certainly, her upbringing might be one impediment. She might have grown up lectured about the extent to which she didn’t matter and punished for attempting to matter. Her culture, too, might have drilled into her the idea that she was merely one of many and that group norms always came first: that religion came first, fitting in came first, not making waves came first. Many life lessons might have taught her that it was wrong or pointless to opt to matter.
Still, the magnitude of the average person’s difficulty in opting to matter is not really explained even by these many negative life lessons. It turns out that the main obstacle she faces is her belief, shared by virtually every contemporary person, that human life is meaningless. Any reasons that she tries to adduce for mattering are overwhelmed by the possibility, bordering on a certainty, that she and her fellow human beings are only excited matter put on earth for no reason except that the universe could do it. All life, hers included, is mere pointless happenstance, not worth crying about or taking seriously.
This bitter pill is a new view, barely two hundred years old. Before that, life seemed special. For thousands of years the idea of life as categorically different from non-life, unique and important in the cosmos, was a core tenet of natural philosophy. A typical argument from the old school is that of the nineteenth-century biologist Schubert-Soldern:
Inorganic chemical compounds do not give rise to organic ones. If the forces at work in inorganic nature are always bound up with atoms and molecules, and if these of themselves can never produce organic compounds, it must follow that the inorganic forces by themselves are incapable of forming anything organic. From this we may conclude that the organic compounds arise not simply from the elements, but only through the operation of life; the inorganic forces are insufficient of themselves to build up organic compounds.
This argument, a tenet of the philosophy known as vitalism, seemed compelling until biologists found, beginning with Wohler and the synthesis of urea in 1828, that organic compounds could indeed be created from inorganic materials. We can date our present difficulties in making and maintaining meaning from that single event, the synthesis of urea. From that day forward a new philosophy was needed, since life lost much of its mystery, sanctity, importance, and glamour.
Once you join the scientific materialists, as all of us have to a lesser or a greater degree, and believe that you can make human beings simply by striking dead atoms with powerful but meaningless forces, life turns meaningless. This is the basic problem with which we’ve been wrestling for two hundred years. To be sure, religions and spiritual beliefs are more popular than ever and ancient vitalist arguments are still upheld in every church. But the suspicion that we do not matter haunts and plagues many believers and all of us who are existential: that is, everyone with a creative bone in his or her body.
We manage to bear up despite the suspicion that we are merely excited matter. We find ways to bear up every day. But on many days we discover that we can’t bear up; on those days we despair about our cosmic unimportance and grow furious with the facts of existence. We feel saddened and defeated and lose our motivation to create or to make meaning in any way. The very word “meaning” strikes our ears as a cosmic joke. Because of our fear that we are merely excited matter and the consequent grudge that we hold against the universe, we feel lost and alienated, like a refugee who will never be able to return home.
Every creative person, believer or unbeliever, is modern and postmodern enough to doubt whether the word “meaning” really signifies anything. If, by chance , it does, it is still an open question whether it signifies anything worth caring about. We fear that the word “meaningful” is a chimera, a high-sounding word that signifies little more than “what I like” or “what I believe.” Are our questions about meaning mere questions about likes and dislikes, on the order of “Do I prefer strawberry ice cream to vanilla ice cream?” We suspect that they are.
Battered by these thoughts, a creator is driven to throw up her hands and cry, “Why bother! Why wrestle this stupid novel into existence? I might as well find some simple pleasures, eat chocolate, take a bubble bath, and to hell with the idea of making meaning!” So she eats chocolate and takes a bubble bath. But within minutes she is forcibly struck by the counter-thought that her life had better have some meaning, even if it is only invented or contrived meaning, so depressing does it feel to have thrown in the towel. A countervailing energy arises in her, something like hope and something like pride, that readies her to do combat with her belief that she is unimportant.
It should be clearer now why a person might have trouble opting to matter, even though not opting to matter brings with it existential pain. And it should also be clearer why a person, even as she doubts her importance and feels disinclined to care about mattering, nevertheless ends up deciding that she really has no choice but to act as if she matters. She may not really believe in her importance, but the pain of not mattering is too great to bear. So she makes a decision that puts her on the path to wellness: she decides to stand tall and make whatever meaning she can, no matter how indifferently the universe looks down on her efforts.
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!