Our consciousness serves as a personal built-in moral guide, a nagging voice of reason that urges us to be more, do better and go higher in a meaningful way. A voice that nudges us towards what we ought to, despite what we may want to. Our mind may sometimes tell us all kinds of stories. But deep down inside there is a voice that knows what the right action is in any set of circumstances. This voice that may cause some tension at times, is referred to as spiritual tension. Whereas this kind of tension that helps us grow and develop is intentionally a good mental energy, things can go wrong. When we lose our connection with our own moral guidance, we start fabricating mental constructs that may cause unhappiness or suffering that could eventually escalate into an existential crises. When someone looses touch with a personal sense of identity and purpose, or looses the “why” in their lives, they may experience an emptiness with feelings of helplessness, frustration, futility and meaninglessness. Also referred to as “Sunday neurosis” this is an existential vacuum and generally a state of extreme disconnection between what we think we are, and what we ought to be (or can be). Typical behaviour patterns in these situations are depression, aggression or addiction which we have all seen somewhere in our lives.
Logotherapy as a meaning centred form of counselling has a particular view on depression. Based on the work of Dr Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy aims to connect us with a strong sense of purpose and responsibility that will help us to navigate through life with a deep sense of meaning. Logos, the Greek word for meaning, is deemed to be the ultimate expression of human endeavour. Some would say that the ultimate meaning of anyone’s life is to self-transcend and become better than you are. To be meaningful and of value to others is what makes life truly special. Logotherapy differs from other psychoanalytical models in that whereas psychotherapy hope to bring instinctual facts to consciousness, Logotherapy brings to awareness our spiritual realities. And with it a strong sense of responsibility to life. When we loose our sense of “why”, suffering or hardship becomes meaningless. Logotherapy teaches us that suffering without meaning is despair, but that meaning can be experienced despite suffering if we are clearly aware of the “why”. There are many examples of people experiencing unavoidable suffering (illness or loss) yet able to live with a strong sense of meaning and purpose, as we will see later in this article.
It is important to note that there is a difference between depression and sadness. Both can be long or short, little or a lot but sadness has an energy about it, whereas depression is lifeless. Depression is a shutting down to avoid pain and when there is no self-efficacy to deal with the pain, it becomes an abyss. Our youth are under immense pressure, probably more so than when parents were their age. Research suggests that the key issues which add pressure to our youth are: academical expectations, family and personal relationships, loss of self-esteem, peer group pressure, no clear personal identity and loss of confidence. Much of the anxiety of today is born from an exaggerated sense of competitiveness that can be a very bad idea. We live in a society where an accumulative mentality dominates and this is not the best foundation to build a life of meaning and success. We need to be mindful of what currency for success we instil in young people and be aware they measure themselves according to what is right for them.
What exactly triggers sad or depressive states differs from person the person yet there may be a common thread. So many young people today live a life based on conformity (doing what others do), or totalitarianism (doing what they are told to do) and are not behaving authentically by their own set of values. So many young people have a plan-less, day-to-day approach to life. Some may have feelings of fatalism – “what’s the use it’s all pointless anyway”. Or some succumb to collective thinking and abdicate their ability to think for themselves. This may be due to many reasons like a lack of clear values and beliefs, or excessive conditioning. Many young people are not sure of what they believe in. A very interesting exercise is to segment personal beliefs into what you were told to believe, and what you believe because you have figured it out for yourself. We have all seen young people blindly following the herd, desperately trying to fit in and be someone recognised. To recognise dominant beliefs and values are critical building blocks on which to construct a life of meaning. And where there is no clear understanding of what those beliefs and value are, it needs to be developed and activated. So many young people blindly adopt beliefs and values they think are correct for them – some may be, but some may not. To “think for yourself” is often quoted, but not always correctly cultivated with the result of leaving young people nodding their heads but essentially rudderless.
Our youth these days have more choices and options than ever before yet paradoxically they are more prone to feelings of meaninglessness. As the famous Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said” “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. When working with young people it is important to create the awareness that freedom exist in the face of three things – instincts, inherited disposition and the environment. One is always free to make the right decision despite these three things. Freedom despite circumstances yet with responsibility.
Dealing with feelings of emptiness and behaviour of depression, addiction or aggression starts by exploring the connection to personal conscience. And from that vantage point become aware of our guideposts to meaning such as self-discovery, personal uniqueness, scope of free choice, personal responsibility and ultimately self-transcendence. Where a young person has a strong sense of self, and an awareness of both freedom and responsibility, there will be a sense of purpose. And when purpose is recognised, feelings of meaninglessness subdues. This awareness is often reached by Socratic dialogue and questions like “what is being asked of me now” or “what am I called to do in this situation, right now”. Another important ingredient is the understanding that meaning of life is beyond the self. It lies outside of us and is directed at someone or some thing (like a cause) beyond “me”.
Logotherapy identifies three avenues by which meaning can be discovered: our creative acts – what we do for someone or something other than ourselves; what we experience and get from life; and lastly but most profoundly, the attitude we adopt to life. Each of these three domains holds the potential of meaning. In this fast paced world, it is easy for young people to miss the clues that may point to meaning. Often meaning is there, it exists, but goes unrecognised. With proper guidance, counselling or coaching the pockets of meaning that exist in someone life can be illuminated, uncovered or discovered.
Meaning and purpose is furthermore not something that can be pre-scribed to anyone. Specially not when working with young people. It can at best be de-scribed. Meaning and purpose is ultimately a personal discovery that we as parents and coaches can hope to illuminate for our children. One of the characteristics of modern society is choice – and with that the freedom to choose. And we have to recognise there exist an ultimate freedom of man – the freedom of thought. We may never be free from conditions, challenges or tasks, but we are always free to decide how we are going to express ourselves or what decision is the right one to make. Making decisions and taking responsibility is such an overtraded value to which young people are daily exposed to. But possibly they are numbed into accepting relatively unimportant or incorrect responsibilities and not stimulated enough to the ultimate responsibility of freedom of thought.
Life is a taskmaster and the quality of someone’s life is directly related to the quality of the questions one asks. Young people specially wants many things and a lot is asked of them by parents and other figures of authority like teachers. But there is one perspective that may lift the young person above and beyond the incessant demands. And that the question not of what I want from life, but rather, what is life is asking from me. In any situation there exists the potential to look at things from another perspective, to self-distance and awaken a defiant spirit that has the energy to take a stand despite the circumstances. The manifestations of an existential vacuum and behaviour like depression, addiction or severe aggression are places we don’t want to see anyone in, but the power to deal with such a situation most successfully comes from within. External medication plays a crucial, valuable part in assisting sufferers of this disease but the ultimate cure is a reconnection with our consciousness. As a “meaning centred organ” our consciousness has the ability to guide us out of the abyss into a life of purpose and meaning.