“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.
“It’s Sartre’s novel, Nausea. Have you read it?”
“It expresses how I constantly feel. I’ve done a lot of reading about this issue, but I can’t find an adequate answer to my problem.”
“Of feeling empty?”
“Yes. Everything is meaninglessness to me.”
“Tell me more.”
“I am 30 now. When I was in my early twenties I was angry at people’s complacency - at their naive belief that their lives have meaning. Then for a while I think I was depressed from seeing things this way. But in the last few years I haven't gotten angry or depressed as much. I just feel bored, detached, empty....”
When I teach philosophy I am fascinated by the emotions which accompany a person's philosophical position. I say 'accompany', but it goes far deeper than that. A major if understandable blindness in academic philosophy is its failure to attend to how people hold philosophical outlooks. Nietzsche wrote, “every great philosophy so far has been … the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” Existential therapy is a philosophical practice, but it differs from academic philosophy in precisely this respect. It attends to the emotional life involved in a person’s possession of an outlook. What is the felt world a person inhabits, which underlies their statements about the world out there? Consider Janet's nihilism, her sense that everything is meaningless. Some nihilists are on an angry mission. But why anger? The reasons vary. In certain cases, so it appears to me, the anger is a protest against the nihilism itself. The person secretly fears they are right, and hopes they are wrong. In other cases it is an attempt to get on top of, rather than sink under (say in a wave of depression) the nihilistic world.
Sometimes anger expresses itself in gleefulness and scorn. Surely that is strange; why these emotions rather than resignation, disappointment or sorrow? During the years before I studied philosophy I volunteered with an organisation that visited elderly people in poverty. In this role I once sat with a homeless man as he slowly died one evening in hospital. There were no family or friends to call, and when after several hours I had to leave it was painful to think that he would die alone, which he did in the early hours of the following morning. If philosophy speaks truth then it must speak to real life. If I had thought that life was meaningless as I sat with that alcoholic as he lay dying, I could not have thought it in a tone of glee or scorn. Perhaps those strange emotions are how one evades their vulnerability - through contempt. These days I am convinced that nihilistic glee and scorn are a luxury. The same is true even of the anger. I think there is room for such emotions only when nihilism has not penetrated too deeply. When it goes in further, when a sense of meaninglessness has entered more fully into a person’s psyche, then such triumphalism rings hollow and there is only painful despair.
I continued the conversation: “So you used to get angry, then depressed, but now you feel nothing, just detachment and apathy?”
“That’s right. And for that reason I've done nothing about this for too long. My life is on stand-still.”
“This is an example of why it is sometimes better to suffer.”
“What do you mean?”
“When a person is in pain they are usually motivated to find a way out of the problem. When the pain goes and apathy replaces it, they lose motivation and enter stand-still.”
“Yes, that’s how it is with me. It’s the monotony that Sartre writes about. But what do I do?”
“I think we need to look deeper into the problem.”
"That's precisely my worry - I've looked too deeply. I over-think things."
"Yes, but often our thinking, as clever as it might be, is of the wrong kind. Let's look again anyway, exploring how you got to this place of emptiness and meaninglessness."
"You mean, how did I reason my way to this position? I think it just makes sense, from the point of view of cold, hard logic, to admit that everything is meaningless."
“What if reason did not get you here?”
Janet seemed puzzled, “I thought when I booked in that we would have a rational debate about what life means, and perhaps you would tell me to read something.”
“Not necessarily” I grinned. Janet returned my smile. But where was I going with this? To be honest oftentimes I simply feel my way forward. This is an intelligent guessing however, or more often a descriptive following of threads. I was tuning into Janet's world. In considering where to go next, I reflected on the fact that the first thing which struck me about Janet was how ill-at-ease she seemed with me. Most people are a little nervous in their first counselling session, but I sensed that there was more to it in her case.
“I'm interested in what it’s like for you to talk to me right now?”
Janet paused for a moment. “If you want me to be honest, I feel wary.”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmmm. Is there a question in it for me?”
Janet paused, seeming to meditate on her wariness, and asked, “What use are you going to make of me?”
“Why do you think I want to use you?”
“I don’t know, it just came to mind.”
“Is that a common question for you?”
“People use one another?”
“Sometimes. Often. But importantly: not always. I think....”
“Everybody uses everybody, that’s how human beings relate.”
Later conversations with Janet revealed that those relationships in which she should have been most valued for herself in her autonomy, were ones in which she was often reduced to a use that the other made of her. In response to these experiences she had withdrawn from life – from relationships, from her hopes for them – such that life had slowly, inevitably, drained of meaning. This influenced her philosophical outlook. I was reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein's claim that "The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem." Her nihilism expressed the truth of her existential, felt world, but there was a wider truth - wider possibilities - to which she had become insensible. She needed to let that desire breath again and to find a reciprocal place for it in the world.
Author: Matthew Bishop
* = 'Janet' is a pseudonym. This story is of a true experience, but all identifying details have been changed to ensure anonymity.
Art work: Brandt Lewis
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.