Friday, July 2, 2010
MEANING, PURPOSE AND DEPRESSION
We are psychologically constituted to seek to understand our place in the world and to comprehend our purpose and meaning within it. The beloved Jewish philosopher and theologian, Abraham Heschel, asserted this very thing:
“It’s not enough for me to be able to say ‘I am’; I want to know who I am and in relation to whom I live. It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?”[i]
Our reason-for-being and the way we live our lives hinges on these answers. However, not any understanding will do the trick. We have to understand that we’re more than just an accident, a mere product of nature and nurture. The maverick psychologist, James Hillman, concurs:
“We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.”[ii]
If we fail to see ourselves as part of a higher narrative, there is a great danger of falling into depression. When we recognize that our lives have meaning, we can endure the trials and frustrations. Even the atheist and Christian-despiser Frederick Nietzsche wrote that “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how!’”
But from where does this “why” or rationale come? Not from secular materialism, which denies all spiritual realities! In this regard, Psychologist Arthur Deikman writes:
“Human beings need meaning. Without it they suffer…Western Psychotherapy is hard put to meet human beings’ need for meaning, for it attempts to understand clinical phenomena in a framework based on scientific materialism in which meaning is arbitrary and purpose nonexistent.”[iii]
However, materialism does offer us one road to finding meaning — a self-created existential meaning. The brilliant atheist mathematician, Bertrand Russell was confident he could create his own meaning and purpose. In Why I am Not a Christian, he wrote of cherishing “the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of fate [of the rest of mankind], to worship at the shrines that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance.”[iv]
Yes, Russell could erect his own shrines. However, could a self-constructed shrine of meaning suffice to give us the meaning we so crave? To suggest that we can merely dream up our own purpose is like merely dreaming up our own wife and kids in place of the real thing. Could such self-fabrications satisfy?
Instead, we need to know that we are somehow connected to Someone greater. Russell’s self-created meaning failed to hold back the “coward terrors.” Later he wrote, “I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life.”[v]
Instead, we were made to participate in a glorious drama (Jer. 29:11), and only acting on this exalted stage can ennoble and truly fortify us against depression (2 Cor. 5:20-21).
[i] Os Guinness, The Journey, 39.
[ii] James Hillman, The Soul’s Code (New York, Random House, 1996), 5-6.
[iii] Arthur J. Deikman, The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy (Boston, Beacon Press, 1982), 4-5.
[iv] Guinness, 105.
[v] Ibid., 106.