This week’s blog post covers the Existential concept of Meaninglessness, discussing how it manifests in individuals and a discussion on how to infuse it into character and plot development.
Existentialism is considered more of a lens or a philosophy, not necessary a theory in counseling. There are not dedicated techniques like there are for the other theories. It is more of a way of being and a way of understanding the client, and if a therapist is good and lucky, s/he can help the client understand their way of being in the world. Existentialism posits that there are four givens in life, that life is finite, that we are ultimately alone, that we are free and responsible for that freedom, and that life is meaninglessness. While at first blush this would seem to be a miserable thought process, when the philosophy is framed by death and everything within is being alone and meaninglessness, this understanding is lacks depth and the willingness to appreciate what the recognition of these core concepts means to us as humans. Fully understood and applied correctly it is a philosophy of hope if a therapist and client are willing to confront what some would call the harsh realities of life, though I prefer to call them the realities of life, because they just are without judgment.
There are two different levels of the concept of life being meaningless, there is the client perception of being aimless and without meaning, and then there is the philosophical meaninglessness in the sense that we are finite beings on earth for only a brief moment in the global scheme of things. In a world of some four billion people currently living, not counting those who have lived and who lived, any individual life is but a blip, and eventually, on a long enough time frame the earth won’t exist anymore, and even those who we think are important now will, all the great literature, art, monuments, will cease to exist. Every person forgotten. It can appear quite depressing, but if we bring it back in, we can search for our own personal meaning, which is what is important.
Victor Frankl once said (paraphrased from Nietzsche) “He who has a why can bear any how.” What this means is if we must find our own personal sense of meaning or drive; if we can find that we can keep moving through life. The key is finding that meaning. As a counselor, I work with my clients to find what gives them meaning. Why did they wake up this morning and get out of bed? Many times it is a link to “immortality” through things like children, or writing, something that will make an impact and exist beyond themselves. For some people it’s hard, they get up because it is what they are supposed to do, not because of any compelling reason. This doing because I’m supposed to leads to feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness, people need something to strive for. It is through struggling and striving towards something that we find meaning.
So as writers we ask ourselves, what gives our character’s life meaning? Why does s/he get up in the morning? Does our main character do heroics because it gives her/him a sense of purpose? Did someone once save our heroine/hero and by returning the favor find meaning? Sometimes it can be the lack of meaning that spurs our character to action. Life has become to routine and mundane, think American Beauty, that the character breaks routine to find out the who and why they are. Another approach is having the character be humbled by the meaninglessness in life, recognizing that all of their striving is ultimately for nothing in the grand scheme of things. From this low point we can help our character rise up and recognize that in the universal sense, their life is meaninglessness, on an individual basis, they have meaning and a reason to exist.
Everyone needs a sense of purpose for being, for existing, for continuing day after day, we as writers must find that purpose. By identifying your character’s meaning for being we can create a reason for her/him to overcome the challenges that they face. We can also have our characters feel small in the world, but help them recognize how big they are in their own world (to throw in another movie reference, think It’s a Wonderful Life). While life can be meaningless, it is our role as writers to instill hope in our characters and readers that there is a purpose out there for each of us.
Writing Prompt: Write about the one thing that your character needs to go on. Think about who your character would be with everything else stripped away from her/him but this one thing, and explain why and how it keeps her/him pushing on even in the face of losing everything else.