Why do some people carry on happily with life? Why do others cease to bother?
I note that some remain unhappy even though they have stopped doing anything and others remain energetic even though they are busy and tired. I do believe that the development of psychiatric illnesses, such as major depressive disorder, is closely related to the meaning you believe your life has. Although many factors play a role in the development of psychiatric illnesses, this is an exploration of the relationship between meaning and depression.
At its core depression is a feeling of meaninglessness, together with a downward drift, in your mood, energy, and overall functioning. Therefore, healthy people are in general moving on over the obstacles of everyday life in a direction, as if there is a meaning, and eventually end up further than when they started the day. This meaning is either conscious or unconscious to them. Seeing people in states of depression and wellness I have come to conceptualize life as a mountain and we are all on it. It has a valley, but it also has a summit. We are climbing and we are seeking different routes, ie, we are going to school, studying, and working. But not always…
Some of us, unfortunately, slip down the slope, and see only the valley, whilest wondering why on earth everyone else is carrying on. It happens unexpectedly for most as if a veil was drawn from their face and they are now seeing life as the meaningless reality that it has always been. Others are forced into this mindset by fateful circumstances that take away the reason they have been living up until then – usually the loss of something or someone. Chances are that most of us will endure an existential crisis like this, some will develop clinical depression, and others will escape it for various reasons, but re-aiming their meaning will be one crucial reason.
At this point, it must be mentioned that coming out of a depression is not as easy as ‘climbing out of the valley’. This article focuses on one way to prevent falling into the valley in the first place. Once you have developed clinical depression you will need professional help. This will include psychotherapy and medication. This will help with getting out of the valley, but it will not help with getting out of life. When patients seek treatment for depression they often want us to take it away (like a surgeon would take away an inflamed appendix), but this would be analogous to flattening the ‘mountain’. This is impossible, and therefore the ultimate solution is somewhere else along the mountain. It is inside of you – more specifically, where you have turned your focus toward on this mountain.
Are you climbing or falling?
Those falling have seized to believe that there is a mountaintop for them. They don’t believe there is anything to do, or that there is meaning to what they are doing. The mountain eventually becomes insurmountable. Gravity conquers. They become a burden to those moving up the mountain (people tend to avoid people who are suffering from depression).
But at this intersection, there is potential for meaning. Some climbers find meaning in helping others turn around. At its core, your meaning will involve fulfilling a role that otherwise would have been void. Doing something that no one else can/will do. Now, this is where some of us sell ourselves short. We say that we are expendable. ‘I can be replaced by many others’ or ‘if I don’t knit beanies for abandoned babies, someone else will’. But this would be to dismiss your own unique qualities. Only you can do it the way you do it. Only you can be the mom or dad to your children, the grandparent, the sibling, the cashier, the friend you are related to, appointed as, or befriended with. Furthermore, the people that meet you at a certain stage in their life will never again meet you at that stage in their life and you may have a specific role to play during that stage, ie, a friend going through an illness. The sociopolitical circumstances of your life might need an NGO, business, book, or activism campaign that needs to be started and written by you. Furthermore, the need in this world is so vast that, even if you do what many others do, your drop in the sea is a drop for someone. There is also meaning towards yourself – looking after yourself, living healthy, and reaching your full potential as you actualise yourself is meaningful.
From this, it becomes clear that the climber had to do a crucial thing, and that is to take up responsibility. The climbers own up to their meaning. They turn their head toward the summit and keep on believing in their own strengths. Climbers get tired and frustrated sometimes, but they are fairly happy because they are on their way. They start helping others, they develop themselves. They are at risk of taking on too much and burning out. That is why it is important to take a break and enjoy the view now and again. It is also likely that most climbers did slip down at some point and were met with a climber who believed in them. Most of us will need help along the way, but eventually, it will only be you who can put your foot onto the next ledge.
We are driven by a series of small meanings, which may change as life changes. But without it, life will be dreary. Spend a lot of time thinking of the times you did what no one else did or what you can and must do that no one else can.
Reading up until here will be enough for some, but I do want to add that it is possible that we all have a meaning that surpasses all the small meanings that get us through life – a meaning that remains after all the small meanings are gone. None of us has seen the summit of the mountain and it is quite possible that all these small meanings link together and join at the summit. If there is meaning to life, that meaning must come from God. [“Speaking about meaning in a Godless universe is absurd…”]. Maybe, while we were growing in our love for others, and as we were building character and as we were learning of our need for grace, while we were philosophying, fighting, and struggling, we were busy growing closer to God. Moving up towards the summit. Maybe the purpose lies in getting to know God. And then, climbing up this mountain becomes so much more important, so much more rewarding. Most of us will have gone through a valley of some sort and even learned a great deal about God while in the valley. What remains crucial is continuing to climb out and climb on.
- Man’s search for meaning. Viktor Frankl