“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” -Alan Watts
Nothing rattles my therapeutic nerves more than meeting with someone who has passed the 50 mark and presents with the existential dilemma of needing to, "Find meaning in my life." I have actually been in counseling session with elders in their 70s and 80s who were lamenting that their lives lacked a sense of purpose. I have been known to go on extended rants on this topic during public speaking events that were only tangentially related to aging. That’s how much this issue both frustrates me and breaks my heart.
Upon reflection, I’ve realized that my reflexive gag response to someone telling me that his or her life lacks meaning is that this “realization” in most cases has not arisen from an inner-calling but to the shouts and shrieks of a youth-addicted culture. It has become an accepted edict in our society to tell our aging citizens that despite their years of accomplishments, struggles, triumphs and tragedies, if they want to age well (whatever the hell that means) they need to find a new purpose their lives. This has even gone so far as to tell folks who were finally able to walk away from the stress-filled work-a-day world that it is in their best interest to un-retire so as to contribute to the social order. (I can feel my fingers tensing up even as I write about this.)
Does it strike anyone else as ironic that the purpose-driven life is supposed to bring about some form of peace of mind? In most cases, any phrase with the word “driven” attached to it portends something menacing, even deadly. We are driven insane, driven to distraction, driven to tears, and driven to drink. Then, in the end, driven to our final resting place by a big long black car that, for the first and last time in our lives, is allowed to run red lights;
This would be only mildly annoying if it were not for the fact that this drive to find meaning leaves so many aging people feeling depressed to the point of giving up on life. This is where I draw the line and call BS on the whole “Your life only matters in you know what its purpose is.”
Let’s be honest, if you ask 100 people what is the purpose of life you will get 100 different answers, and at least 75 of those are going to make you sorry you even asked. Now, let’s imagine that you have, throughout the course of fifty-plus years of dragging your skin suit around the planet, come up with something that makes sense to you. Not only does it give your life meaning, it allows you to sleep at night without worrying that either the morality, or actual, police are going to break down your door at night and charge you with sins against humanity. Then, just as you’re set to relax into your golden years, along comes a professional advice giver to tarnish those years by telling you that you’ve got it all wrong. Using threats of hellfire, predictions of permanent states of hopelessness, and/or levels of guilt that would make the Inquisition look like the Oprah Show, these sages of old age eventually convince you that you need to use your remaining time to become worthy of whatever is coming next.
Is it any wonder that the mass of humanity is running around frantically trying “to achieve something beyond themselves?” Should we be surprised that when fear is the primary motivator, the first causality is love? Rather than acts of cooperation and compassion we get desperation and despair. Rather than inclusion we get isolation and far too many of us trade in becoming old and wise for old and worried.
I have found throughout my psychotherapy practice that I can have an immediate impact on someone’s angst that they’re aging incorrectly because they don’t know their purpose by simply telling them the following; You are life’s purpose! (Sometimes I even add the exclamation point by drawing the image on their forehead making sure that the period lands right between their eyes. This of course is a dramatic statement and I would never really attempt to draw anything on my clients even if I thought it would snap them out of their hypnotic trance of feeling separate from life.)
Now you might ask, "Who is he to tell anyone that they’re life’s purpose? How does he know?" I can only answer that with the following Taoist story by the enigmatic Chuang Tzu:
One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. "Look at the fish swimming about," said Chuang Tzu, "They are really enjoying themselves."
"You are not a fish," replied the friend, "So you can't truly know that they are enjoying themselves."
"You are not me," said Chuang Tzu. "So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?"
That, by the way, is the Taoist version of “nanny nanny boo boo.”
In essence, all I’m doing is reminding them of something they already know but have been systematically trained to ignore. The tension relieved is palpable and the smiles are priceless. For those few who struggle against even being given back their birthright of fulfilling their purpose by simply being, I offer the following:By all means continue on in your search for purpose, look under every rock, turn over every stone, and exhaust both body and mind. All I ask is that you consider the very search itself as your purpose, and then come back and see me so I can do that exclamation point thing on your forehead.