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Creating Meaning in Despair

by Alex Houseknecht, MA

When I was a young boy, maybe four or five, I remember laying on my family’s grey, sagging couch, looking out the picture window and thinking about heaven. It’s not what you might imagine though, because instead of thinking about roads paved with gold or choirs of angels, I was thinking about what it might be like to exist for eternity. It terrified me. I would work myself almost into a panic as I tried to imagine a day, week, or month that never ended. What would I do? Would it always be the same? What was there to look forward to?

This memory has returned to me often over the past couple of months. Work, school,

relationships, everything feels like it’s on hold. It feels like time has stopped, yet the sun keeps rising and setting, an unsettling reminder that in some way, life goes on.

The life I used to live is now suspended in front of me. It’s something like a mobile above a crib, with parts of my life dangling just out of my grasp. It captures my attention to the point that I can’t look away. I point at one area and see the friends I used to meet for coffee. I point to another and see the route I used to drive to work. And another where I did all the mundane tasks and errands that I now would give anything to be doing again. It all lives there like a dream. And then I have a disturbing thought: this is the life I have created for myself. Out of all the possible configurations, I have organized my life in such a way as to become the life that I now find meaningful.

In this life-on-hold, it is hard not to ask, “What purpose is there?” The momentous occasions that come to define our lives are being cancelled and postponed. The absence of graduations, weddings, and funerals, events that usher us into new and significant phases of life, leave us adrift and alone. As our ‘real’ lives wait out there, or even begin to fade away, what does it mean for us, here, now?

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, points toward this horizon in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning. In a postscript aptly named “The Case for a Tragic Optimism,” he argues that we all have the capacity to “creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” But this comes with a caveat: “Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”

We have all done it before, made something meaningful out of pain, sorrow, and heartache. This meaning not only has the potential to bring us happiness, but it can also protect us from suffering. We may not be able to will ourselves back into our lives, but we can find purpose in the here-and-now and begin to create life anew. This reaffirms our dignity and pushes us all toward the hope of a better tomorrow.

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