Finding Meaning from an Existential Crisis
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2016 (edited 2018)
Coloring Life with Meaning
We get stuck in an funk, dizzy from experience and lost in an existential funk. Life sometimes doesn't feel meaningful; we must respond by giving life meaning.
We want meaning. We want the sorrows to have a worthy purpose. When life has meaning, the humdrum existence transforms into flowing riches. Without purpose, life is mundane; the depressing routine of industrialization depresses the soul. Human societies always sought meaning—often finding it through religion—a divine purpose that eases hardships. Songs, ceremonies, and faith alleviates the anxiety of survival. When life loses meaning, the whole texture of existence feels flat. We fall into a funk, suffering from an existential crisis. Troubles, hurts, and loss overwhelm emotions, challenging meanings and leaving us in despair.
An Existential Crisis
Disappointing experience without a grander purpose, dampens hope. We are challenged to shift beliefs when experience fails to fit our expectations of beliefs. We lose the secure footing of purpose; a cloud obscure the brightness. We may wonder, “what’s it all for?” In these empty moments, we are susceptible. Almost any meaning can swoop down and fill the hungry void. But is this what we want---just fill a void? We shouldn’t blindly accept comforting explanations in these pivotal moments, we need something substantial and constructive, willing to temporarily exist in the unknown. Our very existence holds meaning. Purpose can be discovered in all aspects of our lives.
My Existential Crisis
It’s been over a decade since my skeptical examination of childhood beliefs. The accumulating experiences as a big city police officer collided with fundamental beliefs. Because these beliefs were foundational to my family, searching beyond these confining borders was strictly forbidden. Any critical examination of even the possibility of error of the family belief system elicited guilt, secrecy and depression. My journey wasn’t simply drifting away but an active and intentional examination, motivated by looming unanswered questions.
During the uncertainty, I devoured dozens of books—in and outside of my church. The internal conflict was intense. Finally, on one dreadful evening, the search came to an end. At the time, I commuted over sixty miles to the big city for work. This commute provided time to contemplate—forced silence, and heavy thoughts. Alone in my car, radio turned off, a thought quietly settled, it returned a second time but much loader, the third time I whispered the words, “It’s not true.” All the past meaning—everything I explained the world by—it wasn’t true.
"We are all hungry for meaning, for purpose, for the feeling that our life is worth more than the sum of its parts."
Courtney E. Ackerman, MA
Previously everything fit into this neatly packaged design, explaining existence. Now that was gone. Finished with the examination, I came to the best conclusion I could—it wasn’t true. Tears began to fall. Purpose and meaning were always a given in my life; now they were gone.
I pictured my past life as a perfectly set dinner table. Dishes, salad plates, glasses and silverware set in perfect order. This new conclusion yanked the beautiful table cloth from the table, sending the dishes, glasses, and utensils crashing chaotically to the ground; scattered without purpose, meaning, or design, “What’s it all for?” permeated my life. I entertained thoughts of experiencing previously forbidden pleasures without guilt. But pleasure still existed with guilt. Depression, not freedom, is what I found.
"The point is not what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us."
Personal Searches for Meaning
I neither suggest nor discourage engaging in a similar journey in search of meaning. If you doubt, then seek. Sometimes our beliefs suit us well. They give the stability we need to function at high levels. We should follow the path that gives richness without infringing on other’s joys. Occasionally, I wish to return to the past; but knowledge can’t be unlearned. The existential funk that followed eventually led to new endeavors. One of these endeavors was the creation of the Flourishing Life Society. This page is a source of personal meaning. I devout much time to the research, thought, and writing, hoping to keep FLS inspiring and provocative. I also discovered meaning in other areas of my life. Meaning is found in everyday moments. My life has become rich and vibrant.
We—on occasion—spiral into existential funk. I still do from time to time. A predetermined meaning to life makes everything a little neater. A larger than life explanation frees us from the personal work of creating meaning. But purpose created within the boundaries of reality liberates us. We are free to create meaning that transcends the monotony of daily routines. Human consciousness can create meaning for itself.
"In the midst of living, we’re in no position to discern whether our lives matter, and stepping outside of the process of existence to answer is impossible."
Ephrat Livni | Quartz
Resolving the Crisis
To be fully engaged feels meaningful. An engaging task demands focused attention. The task then produces meaning. Each task is not equal in meaning. The value of a task depends upon the end goal. Mowing the lawn has less value than raising a child. But both can be engaging; they both can demand focused attention—and offer meaning.
We create a purposeful life by engagement in these meaningful activities. Feelings of meaninglessness arise when the actions aren’t given attention; the repetitiveness conceals the purpose. We act without thought. The action may accomplish some goal; but the sense of accomplishment is obscured because of lack of engaged. We often walk through life like a robot: Get up; go to work; eat; watch television, and back to bed.
No engagement, no meaning, no excitement.
If, for example, I mow the lawn every Saturday morning, the action easily becomes a habit. Instead of mowing the lawn to accomplish a meaningful goal, I now mow because it’s Saturday. The meaning becomes obscure. Mowing the lawn then becomes a meaningless chore. But if I take time to enjoy the look of the well-manicured yard, the scent of the fresh cut grass and the exercise, the task takes on meaning and the meaning generates feelings of accomplishment. The task is performed with a goal; and goal fulfillment creates purpose.
Giving Life Meaning
We can pack our lives with meaningful activities but when we disconnect from the purpose behind those activities by haphazardly performing out of habit, our lives feel empty. Even something as important as raising children feels meaningless when we overlook the purpose.
Focusing on meaning gives texture and color to experience. Life only has meaning when living means something. Fill your life with purposeful activities. This must include substantial relationships—human involvement. We don’t fare well alone. We need people. Human interaction is full of purpose and meaning. Some endeavors should focus on the future, creating security. We treasure survival-oriented actions. When behaviors secure future health and survival, we feel accomplishment. Hobbies develop talents and skills that also provide enjoyment and engagement.
Each day offers endless choices of meaningful activities. Focusing attention on the purpose, helps infuse the moment with meaning, and having purpose increases joy.
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