On Meaninglessness

“Life is inherently meaningless.”

Occasionally, a patient speaks this sentence to me as if it were a guiding ideology. However, while this statement does contain important truths, it is not a standalone philosophy. In my consulting room, patients can engage with meaninglessness either destructively, as a philosophical-ish conversation-stopper, or productively, as a starting point for the conversation of a lifetime. A person’s ability to engage productively with this truth unfailingly correlates to that person’s chances of getting something out of psychoanalysis. 

When someone cites life’s meaninglessness as some sort of deadpan philosophy, that person is often trying to shut down the conversation. In such moments I have to wonder what about this conversation might be so troubling that it needs to end so definitively. On the other hand, when someone earnestly addresses life’s inherent meaninglessness with dread, terror, bewilderment, or curiosity – and without any snide contrarianism – the conversation can truly move forward into the deeply evocative, generative territory of psychoanalysis. This territory is characterized not by a glib statement of meaninglessness, but rather a question: “So, what now?”

The choice between these two positions comes down to a decision to live a life of responsibility, or a life of blame. We all learn at an early age that assigning blame provides a quick fix to many acute problems, e.g. “I shouldn’t get in trouble for punching him, since he threw the first punch.” Although blaming may temporarily solve such a problem by keeping us out of trouble, it prevents us from addressing the root cause, e.g. “I like provoking people to take a swing at me so that I can blame them for starting it, and punch them repeatedly in the face.” Addressing the problem would first require taking responsibility for the destructive urges at its root, but many of us cannot imagine taking responsibility without also taking blame. 

Terrible things happen in life, and we are generally not to blame for the calamities that befall us, particularly during childhood. Nonetheless, after these calamities each one of us is responsible for learning something from what happened, and making something out of whatever is left of us. Although many other people may be to blame for the series of unfortunate events that shaped our early lives, we are ultimately responsible for picking up the pieces and living the rest of our lives, thoughtfully. 

For many, a terrifying adolescent encounter with life’s fundamental meaninglessness presents the first problem that blame cannot fix. When teenagers realize that the cognitive and emotional depths they are beginning to discover in themselves are fundamentally out of step with an apparently indifferent universe, they often feel overwhelmed with a sense of angry injustice. The fact that that life will simply go on without us once we die is terrifying, but no authority can truly take the blame, as everyone is in the same boat, regardless of age, wealth, or status. 

In the face of an overwhelming cult of happiness in contemporary American society, young people are often encouraged to continue explaining their unhappiness through blame. They often vacillate between blaming themselves for being too negative and selfish, and blaming various existential injustices, including life's apparent meaninglessness. When someone presents life’s meaninglessness to me as an angry conclusion, it usually becomes clear to me over time that this person has not yet assumed responsibility for making something of his life. On the other hand, for someone who is willing to take on that responsibility, inherent meaninglessness is not a conclusion, but rather a problem to work through. 

When a person decides to truly grapple with the question of existence within a framework of obvious meaninglessness, that person is likely to make something of the therapeutic experience. In psychoanalysis, as in any therapy, the point of the work is not to come out at the end of the treatment with no problems. Life itself is a series of problems, and without problems there can be no overcoming, no vitality, and no life. Regardless of our histories, we all have a responsibility to accept and understand what remains, so that we can better equip ourselves for the inevitable calamities of the future. 

Past mistakes provide powerful tools for learning, once we overcome the guilt and shame associated with those mistakes. Through careful analysis, we can eventually trade in our more basic life problems for much more generative ones. The more complex and finely tuned our problems become, the more personal meaning we can create for our own individual lives, in the face of meaninglessness.