Aging and the Meaning of Life
“We do not exist for ourselves.” Thomas Merton.
I am now 80 years old. That number, 80, made me stop and think about passaging time. How can I be 80 when I used to be 20? The answer is that time moves on inevitably. Indeed, it does. The next question is, what is life all about? What is the meaning of life? Ultimately, that is a question we all try to answer.
The other day I met a neighbor in the corridor of my building. We greeted each other. She asked how I was. I told her I felt sad because my wife passed away seven years ago. I also told her we would have been married 57 years. She was empathetic and reminded me that her daughter had died three years ago. Both my neighbor and I are elderly. My wife died before her time at age seventy, and her daughter died three years ago at age forty. We both asked what life is all about.
Irvin Yalom, one of the eminent psychiatrists of our time, in an interview for Psychology Today Magazine regarding the meaning of life, said:
“I think all kinds of meanings in life transcend yourself. They’re linked to other generations of people around us, our children, and our families. We’re passing on something of ourselves to others. That’s what makes our life full of meaning. It’s hard to have meaning in a closet encapsulated by nothing. You must expand your life and do what you can for others.”
People have asked me why I returned to work after having retired. The answer is fairly simple. Besides that, I found retirement profoundly boring. I wanted to return to doing something that always gave my life meaning. I enjoy being a clinical social worker. I enjoy working with people in psychotherapy. I am helping people find meaning in their lives.
Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, learned a lot about the meaning of life as he watched many die. He saw others survive the horrors of the camps. Writing about the meaning of life in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he states:
“This uniqueness and singleness, which distinguishes each individual and gives meaning to his existence, bears creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows a man’s responsibility for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of his responsibility toward someone who affectionately waits for him or to unfinished work. He knows the reason for his existence.
Some existentialists of the twentieth century believed that life has no meaning. Writing about one of his high school science teachers, Frankl remembered his declaring to the class:
“Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
Camus, Sartre, and other Existentialists felt the same as Frankl and Yalom. I’m afraid I have to disagree. My life is meaningful because of my responsibility to my fellow human beings, including my family and friends. Call it spiritual, call it religious, call it what you want, but we must all find the meaning of life for ourselves or suffer despair.
Erik Erikson writes about this when he discusses the Eight Stages of Man in his book, Childhood and Society.
In life’s eighth and final stage, a person looks back and assesses their achievements. If there is a sense of achieving goals, life feels complete. Yalom and Frankl state that success in life includes relating to other people. As John Dunn wrote centuries ago, “no man is an island.” We interact with and need one another.
Finally, because it is essential to our health, we are continuously motivated to seek experience, purpose, and meaning. It is like food, an everyday desire.