IN MY EXPERIENCE some of our mental health issues arise out of our inability to answer this important question.
In simple terms depression is focusing on the trouble of the past. Anxiety is focusing on the troubles of the future. What most of us can agree on is that trouble is unavoidable.
How we answer this question of our origins and meaning either empties or fills up our reservoir of ability to handle the problems that life brings. This reservoir is our resilience ("Resilience"). About Resilience, the American Psychological Association states, "Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors." https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience
Our culture has been trending toward a common definition that success in life is defined by an absence of "trouble". We must insulate ourselves from trouble with financial success, fame and quick fixes that include legal and illegal drugs and experiences. The really important question is, does trouble and suffering serve a purpose?
Tim Keller wrote a book entitled Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. In the first chapter, he explains the way that a secular world without God handles suffering. And then he says this...
In the secular view, this material world is all there is. And so the meaning of life is to have the freedom to choose the life that makes you most happy. However, in that view of things, suffering can have no meaningful part. It is a complete interruption of your life story—it cannot be a meaningful part of the story. In this approach to life, suffering should be avoided at almost any cost, or minimized to the greatest degree possible.
Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (pp. 16-17).
If suffering is meaningless, it should be avoided. The avoidance of suffering empties our reserve of resilience. If suffering has a purpose, it should be embraced because it fills that reserve rather that depletes it.
I am a Christian. I am not writing this to make the point that you need to be a Christian too. Neither do I take that position with my clients. My point here is that our mental health depends on our honest search for an answer to this important and perhaps most important question, "Who am I and why am I here?"
Do I have a purpose? Does my suffering have a purpose? When appropriate, I encourage my clients that suffer to engage in an "honest search" for meaning to help them build resilience.
An honest search is a commitment to search for truth wherever it may lead while leaving some deeply held ideas at the door. We all have beliefs that are deeply held while not supported by evidence. These caveats prevent us from being honest in our search. Faith is a culmination of reason and evidenced based observations. Sometimes our reluctance to believe is driven by our stubbornness to continue holding preconceived and unsupported notions of truth and reality.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis elegantly captured this idea, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” If I am unwilling to allow truth to be defined by anything that requires me to relinquish a thought, idea or behavior, I am restrained from seeing ultimate meaning outside of myself.
Aldous Huxley captured this thinking, "For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom." Mr. Huxley argued that when he was in college he and his friends supported the meaningless of the universe because it also supported their sexual freedom. This is one example of how a dishonest search leads to narrow unsupported conclusions.
If a person's search for meaning holds self-serving reservations of thought and belief, the meaning that is the object of his or her search will remain outside of his or her reach. We all need to be honest searchers of truth without reservations. The meaning we discover may support the resilience we have lost believing that our lives are meaningless.
Bill Parker, J.D., M.S. is a lawyer and Florida Registered Mental Health Therapist Intern and Owner of Experience Matters Counseling, LLC. and Chief Executive Officer of Experience Matters, Inc. a not-for-profit corporation. He can be reached at Bill@ExperienceMattersCounseling.com.