Essay: Finding Meaning in Life

Many philosophical and psychological theories came upon to try and explain the human condition, and even though each one has contributed to the overall understanding of life, most of them deal with casualties and do not answer the deepest question of all – why human beings are here and what makes their existence meaningful. This paper comes to illustrate how one of the latest philosophical theories has to say about finding meaning in life.

Becoming one of the most popular streams in philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s, Existentialism was created by the thinker John Paul Sartre, who, together with Irvin (another existentialist), believed that this question cannot be completely answered. This approach was seen for many years as atheistic and/or pessimistic, however, only one that does not fully grasp the idea of existentialism may claim such a statement. Other existentialist show a very optimistic viewpoint about the meaning of life, divided into two groups- religious oriented and non-religious oriented thinkers. The religious point of view does not necessarily believe in the existence of God, but more likely in a transcendent realm. The non-religious one, on the other hand, indeed believe there is no answer to the existential question “what is the meaning of life”.

Although existentialists did not believe in categorizations, they agreed that defining several key concepts may assist in understanding the theory. Existentialism suggests that there are five givens (themes) that explain their point of view of the world.

These are:

  • Freedom, responsibility and agency
  • Death, human limitation, and finiteness
  • Isolation and connectedness
  • Meaning vs. Meaninglessness
  • Emotions, experience and embodiment

From an existential point of view, freedom is connected to responsibility, though many try to avoid the latter while obtaining freedom. Moreover, existential freedom is different than political one; it refers to the inner “true” freedom of the self, which does not depend upon the outside world. Being in this state, one inevitably takes responsibility over his life’s choices, though in today’s society many find ways to escape this freedom by selling themselves to others’ beliefs. The key to choosing freedom is self-awareness of the factors that influence one’s life and the choice of being aware in contrast to escaping it.

As with any other given, the second one concerning death gives a dualistic point of view for the realm in which we are living- death represents the finiteness of life and every living thing and suggests that without truly experiencing death, life cannot be fully lived. In addition, freedom cannot be obtained if a person never experienced and viewed limitation. In contrast to the physical death, symbolic meaning of it is represented sometimes as the inability of people to control their lives and the world around them – humans tend to obtain knowledge of the unknown, thinking that it will give them the power to understand what is and to control it, two clichés that have psychological consequences. The role of dualism here enters as a contrast between limitations of humans and human potential; leaning towards one of them depends on free choice and the first given.

Usually misinterpreted by people, the existential point of view about isolation and connectedness suggests that only in a realm where the self is able to be part of the whole (connectedness), but in the meantime be a single, detached “entity” (isolation), can truly experience togetherness, and even feelings such as love and empathy.

The main debate between existentialists is whether the human being is a seeking meaning creature, or a creating one. Further, they base their theory on the fact that there is no one meaning of life, but rather the free will- choice- of a person to create a meaning and live it to the full. The opposite, according to them, would mean escape from responsibility and free will.

The last realm that tackles emotions, experience and embodiment is probably the deepest one, having implications in psychotherapy and psychology as a whole. Unlike other philosophical approaches to life, Existentialism sees the beauty in any form of experience and emotion, good or bad. Moreover, embodiment suggests that it is natural that a human being will embody his emotions, and that it is a natural state, from which one should not escape in order to maintain a healthy emotional system. Thus, the point of view implies that experiencing pain and suffering has its own beauty in the way we succeed coping with it and appreciating our lives better after that experience.

Looking at all those five givens, it can be seen that existentialism bases its beliefs on dualism; even though until today many will still argue that it is a pessimistic theory, it is not necessarily true- on the contrary- it can be seen as a very productive and positive way of thinking.

The theory lies upon the beauty in all living things; unconditional love can be an example of it. In an existential way of thinking, to love unconditionally would mean to love despite the negative aspects of a person. Furthermore, this principle is manifested in all five givens; one can even argue that the Bible has made the same distinction between Good and Evil, dark and light, God and Devil. In many religions, the love to God is what stands above all, no matter if evil has shown in our way.

In conclusion, Existentialism stands behind the idea that every person is the creator of his own realm, freely deciding the conditions of his being, as well as his meaning in life. One may choose to be a slave to others or to manifest himself into reality; it frees people from false control, making them truly face what is in front of them, and this many times is suffering and pain. Finding the power to overcome these obstacles, however, and seeing the good even in the bad, is the challenge of any human being. The triumph of good over the bad, in the form of Love towards the world or even the self, demands being exposed to the risks, because, as previously said- one cannot fully live if he does not fully die; and how would a person know to recognize love and togetherness if he hadn’t known evil and suffering. The triumph of life is when it manifests itself in death; good cannot exist without bad, as they are two sides of the same coin; true love and respect to life is the ability to accept them both and have the power to choose Good despite all difficulties.

References
Archer, James, & McCarthy, Christopher J., Theories of Counselling and Psychotherapy: Contemporary Applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Existential Therapy Website (2009). Existential Psychotherapy- A General Overview. Retrieved from http://www.existential-therapy.com/General_Overview.htm
Moustakas, C. (1994). Existential Psychotherapy and the Interpretation of Dreams. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Peck, M. S. (1997). Denial of the Soul. New York: Harmony Books.
Sartre, J. P. (1965). Essays in existentialism (W. Baskin, Ed. & Trans.). New York: Citadel Press.
Sartre, J. P. (1989). No Exit and Three Other Plays (S. Gilbert, trans.). New York: Vintage. (Original work published in 1946).
Schneider, K. J. (2007). Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice. New York: Routeledge.
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

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