Sarah (not her real name) had been experiencing depression, she said, “all my life.” She was always able to function, and carried out her responsibilities as a mother and an editor at a newspaper, but when she wasn’t busy doing something, she felt empty and hollow. “Nothing really matters to me. I feel like my life is meaningless.” Such thoughts haunted her and discouraged her from developing interests, hobbies, or even a social life outside of work and parenting.
Sarah presented in therapy sessions as “flat,” with little emotion showing on her face. She really did not seem to have much emotional response to anything in her life, and conversations with her felt dry and endless, like a desert. We had worked together for several months meeting on an almost weekly basis and I had started wonder if we were going to make any progress at all. Then, one session while she was discussing her childhood, for the first time since I began seeing her, tears welled up in her eyes and she broke down weeping. “I HATE this!” she kept repeating, between sobs, “I HATE this!”
Many people experience a sense of meaninglessness in their lives, not necessarily to the degree that Sarah did, and not necessarily with any clear-cut depression going on for them. I have seen many such individuals in my psychotherapy practice. What I have found, without a single exception, is that, if they do not flee therapy (i.e., quit), they eventually show such an outpouring of emotion as did Sarah. Sarah’s mood and functioning did improve in the months after that session. We both looked back at it as a turning point, though I’m not sure I could tell you what we did that brought it about, other than our exercising patience with, and gentle acceptance of, her persistence sense of “no meaning,” “nothing matters.”
Believing that life is meaningless allows people to avoid feeling painful emotions. Typically, these emotions were originally triggered in childhood by traumatic experiences of neglect, abandonment or abuse, or by un-empathic, or otherwise compromised parenting, but such a background is not always reported by those with feelings of meaninglessness. Some people who experience chronic feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness have reported to me fairly normal upbringing with loving parents. In fact, sometimes such a background heightens the individual’s sense of abnormality, or of not having “any right to feel this way.” Whatever the original cause, the sense of meaninglessness, while it is experienced by the individual passively, that is, “I just feel this way,” it seems rather to be an active, though largely unconscious, attempt to avoid feeling pain.
No logical argument can give life meaning. Anything that one might point to as “clearly meaningful” in anyone’s life can always be deconstructed by asking the question, “for what purpose?”
For example, I might say that spending time with my children is meaningful to me. To that, one could ask, “For what purpose?”
I could answer, “In order to be a good parent.”
“For what purpose?”
“In order to raise happy, healthy children.”
“For what purpose?”
“So that my children enjoy their lives and give of themselves to the world.”
“For what purpose??”
At some point, there is no explanation other than “Because THAT is what I really care about!”
My values cannot be supported by logic: they must be ends in themselves. We don’t love our children because it’s rational to do so. We love our children because we love our children.
When we care about anyone or anything, it is inevitable that that caring will cause us pain. This is why people often get tears in their eyes when talking about people or things they care deeply about. To care is also to be aware that what we care about is vulnerable, can die, can pass away: in fact WILL certainly pass from this world at some point! When we have not yet learned how to respond to this ordinary pain of life, we can develop elaborate defenses that numb us from that pain. One such elaborate defense system is to believe, and experience that, we do not care about anything and that life is meaningless.
If life seems meaningless to you, I recommend that you spend some time learning to meditate if you haven’t already. Once you know how to practice mindfulness meditation, you can focus your meditation on the question, “What actually matters?”
You will probably experience great resistance in yourself to practicing in this way. That is fine, in fact, a strong sign that you are on the right track. There is much pain that you have avoided for a long time. All you need do to make contact with it is keep practicing mindfulness meditation with an openness and willingness for this pain to come up at some point. Sooner or later it will. Invariably, there are meditation sessions filled with tears. It may take several years of practice for this to happen, or you may encounter the pain within days of starting to practice meditation. It may occur gradually and gently, or suddenly, in great, sudden outpourings of emotion. In any case, you will surely break through this illusion of meaninglessness eventually.