Thursday, March 10, 2011

Beyond Nihilism

The Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) begins with the phrase, “Futilities of futilities…All is futile!  What profit does man have for all his labor which he toils beneath the sun?”  Counter-intuitively, this phrase was composed by a man at the height of his power, living in sustained peace and prosperity.  King Solomon, the transcriber of Ecclesiastes, ruled over the land of Israel during the time of its greatest political influence and longest period of tranquility.  He had achieved the most any person can expect from this world and yet felt compelled to detail all the vanities of life.  As he writes, “I have applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.  I perceived that this, too, is a vexation of the spirit.  For with much wisdom comes much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases pain.”

We generally have no time to think about the ultimate purpose of our lives while we are caught up in the struggle of making a living, raising kids, and pursuing our personal needs and desires.  It is only when we have attained a certain level of prosperity and peace can we sit back and reflect on the point of it all.  The actor and comedian Jim Carey once said that his greatest wish for humanity would be for everyone on the planet to experience fame and fortune so we could all see that it doesn’t necessarily make a person happy.  It is one of life’s great ironies that after years of intense struggle to achieve a certain goal, there is often a great letdown when we finally accomplish it.  We’re left saying something like, “Is this it – now what?”

I have found in my therapeutic practice that a lot of our problems are self-created with the subconscious intention of keeping our thoughts away from the ultimate meaning of our lives.  Nihilism - which is the belief that all endeavors are ultimately futile and devoid of meaning - is the greatest threat to our psychological and emotional well-being.  It undermines our motivation and resolve and we instinctively shy away from anything - including peace and quietude - that might open us up to this manner of thinking.  My first clinical supervisor once told me that many psychological problems, at their core, are existential in nature.  The unspoken and unanswered question is, "What is the meaning of it all?"  After many years of clinical practice, I believe that he was right.

The answer to the problem of nihilism, according to Chassidic philosophy, lies in King Solomon’s use of phrase “under the sun.”  The sun is symbolic of the source of all life – G-d.  When we live our lives detached from the Source (“under the sun”), viewing life as merely an endless pursuit of human needs and pleasures – devoid of any bigger purpose and meaning – then we will always be left empty at the end of the day.  But if we see our lives as connected to G-d’s plan to bring this world to perfection – ushering in the messianic era – then we can find the purpose of even the smallest of actions.

For example, a typical office session might include a client's narrative detailing the many mindless and aggravating tasks the she has to accomplish in her normal day.  She is very disheartened by it all and has to literally drag herself from one thing to the next.  The client reports that she is, "just sick of it" and can’t see the value of, "keeping at it day after day."  With these factors out in the open, we can slowly examine the path of her day, finding how it impacts her life and the lives of those around her.  We then can broaden the inquiry to determine how her responsibilities fit into the needs and workings of the broader community.  Finally, we investigate how these seemingly mundane and repetitive tasks are absolutely necessary for G-d’s plan for humanity to come to fruition.  She may have a strong belief in G-d, but she has neglected to explicitly attach her actions to G-d’s purpose.  This exercise is usually extremely valuable – allowing her to take heart from seeing how everything she does is tied to something bigger than herself.

Consciously attaching what we do to the infinite source of life provides our lives with depth and meaning.  We should start off each day with a quiet meditation linking our “to-do” lists with G-d’s bigger plan, and we should end each day with an accounting of how we did.  This will keep us from living “under the sun,” and far away from nihilism.

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