Meaninglessness and Mental Illness

Meaninglessness and Mental Illness



“In a time of destruction, create something.”  Maxine Hong Kingston


Struggling with a sense of meaningless in our lives is a common phenomenon.  There is also a significant association between meaninglessness and mental illness.  The experience of a lack of meaning can be characterized by boredom, apathy, emptiness, anger, and cynicism.  A person who feels that life is meaningless lacks direction, and questions the point of most of life’s activities. This void can lead to mental health issues like depression and reliance on drugs and alcohol to cope.


Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, discovered the importance of finding meaning in all of our experiences, even the most savage, dehumanizing and painful ones, such as living in Nazi concentration camp.  Frankl believed that all people are driven to find meaning and that even in suffering we can find meaning and thus a reason to continue living.


Our ability to respond to life and to be responsible to life is a major factor in finding meaning and fulfillment. Creating meaning, involves choosing to become a creator.  And as a creator we each have unique identities, purpose and passion.  However,  fear of failure, self-doubt, risk of embarrassment, feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness and blame often interfere with our engagement  in the creation of a life of meaning.


I have experienced a life of meaningless, a life I believed was not worth living.  21 years ago, my beautiful daughter Jasmine was shot, murdered, in our home, in front of my then 8 year old, autistic son, Jordan.  This experience was devastating.  My son refused to return home.  I didn’t want to live there either.  He was severely traumatized.  We lived as transients for the next 5 years.  I was unable to work for a period of time.  Everything  I had strived  for was destroyed.  I was numb.  I felt completely disconnected from everyone and everything.  I was angry.  Angry with those responsible.  Angry at god.  Angry with life.  Each and every morning, I awoke with a feeling of dread and a sense of impending doom.  I wanted to die.  I couldn’t see a reason to live.  I spent much of my time contemplating and fantasizing about how I would end my life.  


Two realizations kept me from ending my own life.  The first was that ending my life would cause further harm to my precious son. The second was the thought that causing harm to myself would contribute to the overall violence that exists in our world.  When I first decided I couldn’t end my life,  I continued to wish I was dead.  I felt depressed and anxious.  I lived in darkness and could not, in fact resisted, finding my way out.  The best I could do was pray for an answer.


One day, I was browsing books for sale at the library when I discovered and purchased a little book, for a dollar, called the Power of Compassion, written by the 14th Dalai Lama.  I don’t recall the details but the message that stuck with me is that we can transform and transcend our suffering by cultivating compassion and engaging in acts of creation. I began to realize again that love is the essence of all creation and that I could move away from the darkness by choosing to focus on loving.  Loving myself, loving my son, loving my family and friends, loving my clients, loving strangers and loving life.  By concentrating on being more loving, I distanced myself from destructive thoughts, feelings and actions, and as a result, I was able to find meaning in life again.


Moving toward a life of meaning involves taking action.  We can’t think our way into our life’s passion and purpose, we need to ‘do’ our way.  It’s important to take steps towards what we want and to remove what we don’t want.  The more we act, the clearer we become.  Instead of overthinking by constantly concerning yourself with will it work, should I try, what if I fail, start taking steps.  Try not to worry about failure.  It’s going to happen.  Try not to worry about mistakes. You will make them regularly.  We all do.  Try new things.  Discovering our passions, creating a meaningful life is a process of trial and error.  It requires a consistent effort.  We don’t know, until we actually do.  


Consider these questions.  If you could choose, what would you do with your time?  What are your values?  How do you want to be remembered?  What, who, do you love?  What are you passionate about?  How can you start working towards that today?  If you don’t know, just try something, anything, to get moving.  


“Even when you don’t know how, believe that you will.” Johann Wolfgang vanGoethe




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