[This post is the sixth in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
Just as meaning has its reasons, meaning has its rhythms. These rhythms are typically completely predictable. Consider the following.
You enter a graduate program with high hopes, excitement, and enthusiasm. You feel on what you are internally calling a meaningful path. Looking at the description of the classes feels exciting—those descriptions generate the feeling of meaning. The program “feels meaningful.” You can’t wait to get started, you find yourself in a good mood (because experiences of meaning elevate mood), you splurge on a new computer, you sharpen your pencils, and you practically sing your way to your first classes.
You begin your program—and none of the classes meet your expectations. One is taught by a bully; one is dull and detail-oriented; one makes no sense to you; one is flat-out boring. In none of those classes do you experience the feeling of meaning. Naturally, not used to using the language I’m proposing, you don’t say to yourself, “It looks like these classes aren’t going to provide me with the experience of meaning. Maybe getting my degree is still a valuable idea, for certain reasons, but I see that the program is not going to meet my meaning needs or feel very meaningful.” Instead, you’re likely to say, “This is so depressing” and “I think I ought to quit.”
The worst part in that you no longer believe in the subject or the profession. You thought that the subject would feel more special—that cognitive science would have more interesting things to say about consciousness than it appears to have, that art history would feel like an adventure, more like going to Florence than learning names and dates, that clinical psychology would be more about human nature than it appears to be. You suddenly “see through” your chosen profession and have no idea what to do next. You’ve taken out loans; you have no alternative plan; you’re apparently committed to this path; and yet you hate where you are.
What naturally follows? You begin to skip classes and procrastinate on assignments. You find yourself unable to sleep as your mind pesters you with thoughts like “How can I make this better?” and “These classes are so awful!” and “Should I drop out?” and “If I drop out, what would I do with my life?” For the first time in your life, you experience serious insomnia. You also find that you have no appetite, which mirrors your loss of appetite for life, and you find yourself losing significant weight. On many days, you find it hard to get out of bed.
This is one typical meaning crisis and its predictable rhythms. Nothing “clinical” happened: your brain did not become suddenly disordered. Exactly the following happened, that a person invested meaning in the idea of something and its reality badly disappointed her, thus failing to provide her with the experiences of meaning she had hoped to receive and precipitating a crisis.
If, feeling sad, anxious, sleepless, and unwell, you went to a psychiatrist or some other practitioner of the standard mental disorder model, you would receive a diagnosis—likely of clinical depression—and chemicals. Chemicals for a meaning crisis! But, that is exactly what you would be offered. That you had experienced a collapse of meaning would never, in the current ways of thinking about things, get on the practitioner’s radar.
What we have here is one characteristic picture of the presence and absence of experiences of meaning (of meaning’s vicissitudes), how meaning is affected by the real world (by, in this case, “seeing through” one’s choice of program and profession), and how these vicissitudes are likely to be labeled a “mental disorder” by the typical mental health professional and treated with powerful chemicals.
What our graduate student needs to do is one of the following two things. She needs to either reinvest in her life purpose of becoming a professional of a certain sort (a cognitive scientist, an art historian, a psychologist), to hold her nose, to make it through her classes, and to find other ways to coax some meaning into existence even while her program is devoid of meaning; or to catch her breath, announce that her professional choice no longer makes sense to her, not bad-mouth herself about “abandoning her program” or “quitting” or “making a tragic mistake,” and either plot a new course or, if it is too soon for that, take a break, consciously announce that for a period of time she will not be hunting for meaning or even needing meaning, and deeply relax. And she will need to forgive—herself, for having been seduced by that shiny path, and the universe, for cheating her out of that path.
Neither choice amounts to a perfect solution. The perfect solution would have been that her graduate program would have matched her hopes, dreams, and needs. But it hasn’t; and there she finds herself, in crisis. What I’ve just described is one typical meaning rollercoaster, where a person has hopes that a path will provide her with experiences of meaning and even a lifetime of meaning, the path doesn’t, and she stands bereft. Many people experience this rollercoaster in their lifetime!
Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself—and maybe the above analysis will help you understand what happened. That meaning will come and go in this fashion is virtually guaranteed. Meaning has its rhythms, and unless one has the sort of grasp of “what meaning is” that I’ve been describing and can step to the side and explain to themselves what is going on—and what to do—those rhythms will be experienced as crises. And as to what to do—well, we will look at that shortly!
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
READ PART THREE: Why ‘Is Life Meaningful?’ Is the Wrong Question
READ PART FOUR: Meaning Has Its Reasons
READ PART FIVE: The Cost of Meaning
This Post is republished on Medium.
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