The affliction of our day is pointless-ness. Its emotional effects are often labelled with that catch-all word depression. But the solution to this problem cannot by found in the doctor's office. The sense that there is no point to life is not a mental illness. Often it reflects a lack of real purpose in our lives. Too often we live without a clear sense of meaning, without something important to serve, with nothing to strive for. A blanket of deflation and despair may then settle on us. Whether you call it depression or something else is beside the point, what matters is the answer to the problem. How does life become meaningful and engaging again?
Counselling is a wonderful art that helps us to understand and change ourselves, while being supported in our challenges. What I do in my work is combine counselling with philosophical depth. I draw on other disciplines also, for example I follow positive psychology research so that I can combine the art of counselling, and the depth of philosophy, with the test of science. But it is through philosophy that we find insight, clarity, and depth about what matters most in our lives. I am aware, however, that many people see philosophy through the lens of stereotypes, such as the cogitating intellectual removed from the world of flesh and blood. Today I want to give expression to what philosophy is, which shows why it is so important for counselling, because it is so important for living a full, good life.
Resilience is so important for building a good life. It connects with and serves deeper values and purposes. And yet often when I hear talk of resilience, I hear superficiality. Behind all the enthusiasm, I hear people seeking to deny their vulnerability. We need to get clear on what good resilience is, so that we do not pursue mere fantasy, or worse, pursue cowardice or egotism dressed in shiny words. Genuine resilience requires the cultivation of depth and compassion. True resilience is wisdom that is lived.
I help a lot of people who are recovering from a relationship with a narcissist, whether a parent, partner, friend, employer, or other. Narcissistic parents do the most harm, but for many of my clients the trouble does not end when they have grown up and left home. This is because narcissists are at their worst when things do not go their way, and one of the greatest challenges in life is ageing. Narcissistic parents often become worse as they age. How do you behave according to your deeper values while protecting your well-being, around such a parent?
"You want hear about the dreams” began John. “Well, it was a night of horrors." He raised his hand in front of his face, "It was like my unconscious was just there, and ripped open so that I could see and feel everything. I slept maybe half an hour at a time, waking in panic each time from a new dream. Do you want to hear about my dark night of the soul, and what I learned about myself?” I certainly did.
Should we accept anger? Or should we cultivate forgiveness instead? One leading philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, says No to both. She argues a compelling case that, while anger may be psychologically understandable, it is something we should move beyond, and that there is a third, better option beyond anger or forgiveness.
130 years ago Nietzsche claimed we were experiencing unprecedented change: “Whither are we moving? [...] Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?" The change was one of meaning and value. Nietzsche saw that a new age was rising in the Western world: the age of nihilism. With it has come new tendencies in depression.
Generous people often speak of having their generosity abused. They feel taken advantage of, sometimes to the point of being hurt or harmed. This vulnerability is sometimes a consequence of their own confusion, between two different types of generosity: reciprocal versus unconditional. When we become clear within ourselves about such things, we can protect ourselves while still living according to our better values.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did." Perhaps F. knew what it is like, when the inner world speeds up while the clock on the wall seems to slow down. When the hours become mud, and tremors pass through the body. That bomb in us which only loved ones can detonate. No distance separates strangers in a room, and yet there is a chasm. No distance separates the heart of true friends, but betrayal creates a chasm. Whether in romance or friendship, how do we live with betrayal?
When he lost her he was reminded cruelly of metaphysics. Ontology. That a particular thing can have an absolute value. A paradox, surely, but one that shows itself in our lives. In our loves. In our griefs. Later he reflected: We love certain people absolutely. And we love numerous people this way. Mathematics would say: when we lose one we still have the others. So too does the advice of friends. So the grief should be partial. The logic of the soul, however, giver of value, says No. By a strict inner law the loss of one absolute renders the whole of life a place of loss. For a time. This is the logic of deep grief. He would learn it in his body as much as his mind.
If you believe that the world is meaningful in an intellectual way, but you don't love, then you will experience it as meaningless. Conversely, if you believe that the world is meaningless, but you love, you will experience it as meaningful. Love changes our experience. It is a way of reading life.
When it comes to grief - death, separation, loss - to think of the truth is to be in pain. A person asks, "Why can't I just see this differently, feel differently?" But they are trapped by reality, by something they can avoid only by distraction or delusion.
What does it tell you when it tells you now you grow up?
What does it tell you when it tells you now you be a man?
Tidy your thinking up, finish your drinking up?
Be the Tom, be the Jack, beat the beaten track,
Die the slow death your forefathers died, in fact
Be ever lonely and angry inside of that
Maze of rage and inchoate affection.
Those words are from Melbourne band Augie March. The song ends with: “After the fall, after the crack up, Nothing then? Nothing then.” Nothing, it is true. There is no reward for going through shattering and hell. Not that it is nothing to go through it - it can be all-consuming - but the experience itself is a negation, a destruction. One which exposes a nothingness in us. So what then?
The human psyche is like an iceberg: we only see the top. This is why ships sink on their icebergs. And people too. We might see only the surface of something that goes much deeper, which we misunderstand, and which can fracture our life. Or the lives of those we love. This is why ships need instruments, and we need vision.
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must answer that question.
For the philosopher Plato it is eros - desire, love - which gives shape to our lives. As the later platonic philosopher Simone Weil put it, “All human beings are absolutely identical in so far as they can be thought of as consisting of a centre, which is an unquenchable desire for good, surrounded by an accretion of psychical and bodily matter.” It is in the accretions that we differ, but desire lies at our core. Freud agreed, although he was constrained by the prestige of a certain conception of science, and using scientific language he spoke of the "libidinal drive." Later he too used the language of "eros", which he identified with Plato. It is often said by psychoanalysts that we live our lives in the light of our first loves. And in the shadows cast by them. A certain formation of such shadows can constitute what we call depression.
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this which is above all sacred in every human being.
It is this which is sacred in us.
And it is this which makes us suffer.
It is also this which gives our lives meaning and value.
Most than merely a psychological problem, anxiety reflects the challenge of living. Life is dangerous. Practical philosophers since ancient Greece have responded to this anxiety through getting wiser about it, and putting that wisdom into practice. This lived wisdom enables us to face our anxiety through the cultivation of clarity, courage, and a focus on what really matters.
Last week I created my first video, on this theme of how the ancient Greeks can help us contend with anxiety, and today I am providing you with a podcast version, for those who prefer to listen rather than watch.
We are told that perfectionism is a bad thing, that we ought to rid ourselves of it. I disagree. Yes, it can be a tyrant that destroys us, but it also expresses much that is best in us, and drives us to become better. Put simply, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Rather than shy from its dangers we should develop skill in its use.
Klara hates the feeling that she is making “demands” on others, and this causes problems in her personal and professional life. She becomes over-polite when requesting something of another at work, but this is a reaction to her anxiety. The other person perceives that tension and reacts to it as criticism or aggression, becoming tense themselves. "This makes everything worse." Klara tells me she wants to make others feel comfortable and respected, but that her efforts often have the opposite effect. Such instances play on her mind and as she talks about them she is in tears.
Many people feel incompetent in life. They fear the future, that their mistakes will lead to permanent suffering; they fear regret. They wonder how others are so confident. They worry they will be revealed as a fraud. The problem is often pictured as a lack of self-esteem, and that is often be true, however the pursuit of self-esteem can make things worse.
Human beings seek value. It is the very essence of us. We ask what matters, try to do valuable things, and value others. We also want to be valuable. This desire can give us meaning, but it makes us deeply vulnerable. We need the esteem of people who matter, and when we get it we feel good. And sometimes wonderful. When we don’t, conversely, we may feel wounded and worthless.
To be human is to be lonely. I am speaking of a loneliness which exists even when we are surrounded by others. It is rooted in the anxiety we feel in the face of our vulnerability. It is rooted in our secret shame – a sense of being bad, flawed, or worthless. It may follow from a being unseen or misunderstood. It may be there when we feel assaulted by the world. Ultimately then our loneliness, whatever its particulars, is rooted in our human condition. Some philosophers have romanticised this problem, painting life as unquestionably bleak and recommending a heroic posture in the face of despair. Alternatively hedonistic outlooks seek to sooth the pain with pleasure or comfort or the image of security. But these answers simply reflect and reinforce the problem. They themselves are bleak. There is another way which is good, which is meaningful, but which is also more demanding. I am reminded of Flaubert’s words: “The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life.”
“I feel empty most of the time.” Janet* stretched awkwardly on the couch and eyed me with discomfort. “I don’t know that you can help me.”
“What led you to book in and see me?”
She pulled a paperback from her bag.
"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares."
Nouwen's words inspire today's reflection. They came to mind not long ago while speaking with a woman whose husband had recently suicided. The temptation is always there, when in the presence of suffering, to offer something tangible - knowledge, consolation, a cure. We recoil from pain, including the pain of others, and find subtle ways to defend against it. We try to delude ourselves that we are not helpless, that we can change things. But such ‘helpfulness’ merely serves us and our fears while denying the other what they most need from us. It is hard to stand there, empty-handed, and simply pay attention to the other in their suffering. However attention, defined by Iris Murdoch as “a just and loving gaze”, can be as Nouwen suggests the other’s greatest need and our best gift. Words and deeds may pale by comparison.