Meaning is the quintessential existential topic. All topics lead to and are connected with meaning. An essential assumption of the existential theorists is that people are meaning seeking creatures. It is meaning that can make existence bearable. Conversely, the lack of meaning is one of the greatest existential terrors. Becker (1973) said it well: “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level” (p. 196).
Meaning Creating vs. Meaning Seeking
An important ongoing debate amongst existentialists lies in the question of whether we are meaning seeking or meaning creating questions. In the end, this question is often one of theology in the sense that it is necessarily connected to a person’s basic world view and beliefs about the infinite. In stating that we are meaning seeking creatures the assumption is made the human life is inherently meaningful and our endeavors are to discover this meaning. The belief that we are meaning creating creatures assumes that we are able to create meaning in our lives. The extreme of this position would declare that there is no ultimate meaning, only the meaning we create.
Many theorists would state that both of these are true, at least to a degree: People are both meaning seeking and meaning creating creatures. It is important to note the ethical implications of this distinction in working with consumers of therapy. Often, there are important religious implications in this issue. For example, many who are religious may think it to be blasphemous to state that we can create any ultimate meaning. It is important for existential therapists to be aware of their assumption and the assumption of their clients in regards to this issue in order not to impose their values upon others.
Types of Meaning
Meaning can be organized into at least three different types of meaning: False Meaning, Transitory Meaning, and Ultimate Meaning. While some examples are offered here as to what may represent these different categories, it should be emphasized that what constitutes each of these types of meaning is highly personal and may vary from person to person.
False meaning could be described as myths without any healing or sustaining power. This type of meaning is typically destructive. At times, they may help people copy and maybe survive, but they have no power to address the existential issues. Examples of false meaning could include money, power, or sex. These may have some positive utility, but in and of themselves are lacking. Sex, when part of a loving, intimate relationship has tremendous power for connection. However, when removed from relationship becomes destructive.
Transitory meaning can help us cope, but cannot help for us to transcend. Again, they lack the ability to address the existential issues. However, these are not as destructive in nature as the false meanings can be. This type of meaning may facilitate growth and lead to ultimate meaning, but in themselves are not ultimately meaningful. Examples would include work, service, leadership, education, self-growth, and self-awareness. All these can be positive, healthy values, but are not good ends.
Ultimate meaning is a type of meaning that aids in the transcending the existential issues of death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. I would maintain that this type of meaning necessitates relationship — with God or with other. However, it is not just relationship that achieves ultimate meaning, but a type of relationship. This involves a way of being in relationship that is ultimately meaningful as an end.
The assumption ultimate meaning necessitates relationship does not, in this conception, include relationship with self. This intentionally contradicts the common American value of individualism and self-sufficiency. Intrapersonal relationship, at best, can be a transitory meaning. Ultimate meaning necessitates an other and assumes that humans are relational beings. However, the other is left very open so as to be able to include God, other people, animals, and potentially even nature (for those who view God in nature).
Coping versus Growing
The psychology of coping has received growing attention in recent times. Similarly, the idea of being ‘a survivor’ has become idealized by western society. However, from an existential perspective, merely surviving or coping is not really living. It certainly offers transitory meaning at best!
A distinction can be made between a coping mechanism and a growth mechanism. A coping mechanism is one that helps a person survive and maintain where they are at. A growth mechanism helps a person to survive, but also allows for growth through what is being survived. Often, the same mechanism could serve as either a coping or a growth mechanism depending upon how it is used.
Parks, Cohen, and Murch (1996) developed what they called the stress-related growth scale which measures how much an individual is able to growth through a difficult, stressful, or traumatic experience. Hoffman and Whitmire (2002) used this to examine the response of people to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This research suggested that some coping mechanisms, though they may help people sustain, they were not associated with growth. Others, such as venting and turning to God, were associated with stress-related growth.
Coping and safety, when these become they primary values which one bases their decisions upon, often prevents a person from truly living and prevents them from finding meaning in their lives. This type of coping in many ways can be likened to the false meanings discovered above. In other words, it is false meaning that often prevents people from achieving ultimate meaning.
For Vicktor Frankl (1984, 2000), meaning was so central that he named his approach to therapy “logotherapy” which stands for “meaning therapy.” It is a very broad, complex topic within existential theory. It is also one that unites the various categories of existential thought. The end of death, freedom/responsibility, isolation, and emotion all point to meaning. It is meaning that can sustain us and it is meaning that helps us to truly live.
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Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.