Episode 15: Opting to Matter
Today’s is the sixth 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 mattering is an available option—and one that helps eliminate depression.
Today’s is the sixth 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 “Opting to Matter,” we examine the idea that mattering is an available option—and one that helps eliminate depression. Let’s begin!
When creators try to throw up their hands and resign themselves to accepting postmodern meaninglessness, they find that they can’t. The word “meaning” continues to vibrate in a way that convinces them that, while it may be a difficult and even a suspect word, it is not an empty word. Meaning means something and, because it does, an authentic life is possible. At the last instant, ready to embrace the terrible fruits of deconstruction, they return with a vengeance to the belief that a meaningful life can be led and that they are obliged to choose that way.
In our heart, we opt for life. We opt to live the twenty years or the sixty years ahead of us. This may be all that we have, but it is exactly what we have. As Schubert-Soldern aphoristically put it, “To understand life, we must contrast it with death.” We force life to mean because we are alive and not dead. We force life to mean while we are alive and until death releases us from our responsibility to live authentically. We say, “While I am alive I can love.” We say, “While I am alive I can learn a few things.” We say, “While I am alive, I can help in some ways.” We say, “While I am alive, I can create.” We live because we can and because, unromantically but utterly sincerely, we must.
In the two decades after the Second World War, when the French existentialists Camus and Sartre were becoming worldwide figures and the philosophy dubbed existentialism was gaining millions of readers, it looked like issues of personal freedom and meaning-making might become subjects of deep, abiding interest to creators everywhere. But people retreated from the demands that existentialism posited. Even creative people found it impossible to look life squarely in the eye and announce, “I am the final, complete arbiter of meaning. The only meaning my life can have is the meaning with which I invest it.”
The most important shift for the contemporary person to make is the one demanded by the existentialists, the shift from the despairing “Why do I exist?” to the steely “I exist.” A creative person must stop pestering herself with the unanswerable questions that plague her--the need to know why she is alive, who or what made the universe, what expert can tell her about the meaning of life, and what are the first or final causes--and accept as her mantra, “I am alive.”
In her aliveness she finds everything she needs to know about how to live. All she needs to do is accept her purest understanding of her own meaning-making responsibilities. She doesn’t have to adapt to existence any more than a bird has to adapt to the sky. She and existence are already adapted together. She simply has to accept that she is the only possible maker of personal meaning. Part of her wants to cry out, “I don’t belong here, there’s no place for me here, the heck with it!” But she does belong here and she must pull her chair up to the table.
Even if she manages to do this, a dark postmodern coloration will persist. In a corner of her mind a creator is always this close to believing that meaning is an illusion and that meaninglessness is the true state of affairs. The best that she can do is inoculate herself against this potential loss of meaning, and consequent depression, by devoting another corner of her mind to the rejoinder that meaning is not an illusion and that her life can be made to mean. This is the dynamic tension that adds unwanted stress to every contemporary creator’s life but that really can’t be avoided: poised on the brink of meaninglessness, you must repeatedly fight your way back to a belief in personal meaning.
You take the postmodern coloration into account by refusing to entertain the idea that meaning is a meaningless word. Meaning may well not mean what we would like it to mean. It may only mean something like “that which my human nature elevates to a high status, even though that elevation is of no concern to the universe at large.” Even if it means just that, then meaning has meaning for you. It may be a folly and a gamble to make this deal with yourself--to announce that “meaning means” and that it must mean until you cease to exist--but it is the right folly and the only good game in town.
We opt to matter irrespective of the fact that life stands squarely in the way of our ability to matter. If we refuse to opt to matter, our meaning-making efforts peter out and we end up settling for second-rate meaning substitutes or meaninglessness, each with its attendant depression. But if we hold ourselves up to a lofty, entirely self-imposed standard--that we are determined to matter, in accordance with our highest principles--then we imbue our meaning-making efforts with the seriousness that we know they require.
Opting to matter does not answer every meaning question, nor is it a complete depression treatment program in-and-of-itself. It alone will not make a boring meeting meaningful or a mistake that ruins a novel a pleasant experience. It alone will not keep meaning afloat on gloomy days when nothing feels worth attempting. It alone will not cure a hormonal imbalance or end an Arctic winter. Still, it is a vital step on the path to authentic living. Once meaning becomes an issue, as it does for every creator, a state of crisis exists and crisis management begins with the decision to matter.
Joseph Fabry explained: An art professor at Sacramento State College observed that students often panic when confronting an empty canvas and are unable to paint. They experience the existential vacuum of the contemporary painter: no style is required, no tasks are demanded of them. After the shock of the empty canvas subsides, the students often go back to old masterpieces to search for significance or to slavishly copy the past. Students panicking before the empty canvas are the prototype of many people today, free to do as they please.
A painter facing a blank canvas, a writer facing a blank computer screen, an actor facing a cattle call audition, a researcher facing a mass of data, is facing this postmodern question: “Do I or my efforts matter?” As Irving Yalom put it, “How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?” At first glance there seems to be no answer to this terrible question. But the answer is straightforward. We have been given life. Part of our inheritance is human consciousness. Out of this very human consciousness arises the idea that we can live righteously and meaningfully. Therefore, we can opt to do just that. Maybe we are trivial creatures in a trivial universe. Will you allow that suspicion--even that fact--to paralyze you?
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!