WHAT’S THE POINT? THE ARTIST’S SEARCH FOR MEANING IN A BROKEN WORLD.
The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why
When the news is bad, whether it’s global, local or personal, I inevitably find myself questioning more than ever, why I do what I do, when it appears to NOT to be changing the world. And if not, why am I here? As a creative person yourself you’ll recognise this kind of existential angst- when we question the value of what we do whilst forests are burning and constitutional crises looming. But this is precisely when we need to buckle down and hold firm. We are needed more than ever. To stand fast in understanding our own ‘meaning and purpose’ is perhaps the most important part of our work.
Finding our meaning- and a way to make it real and to become truly fulfilled is especially important for creative people. I know from my own experience that without real meaning in our lives we can soon slide down a slope of insecurity, low self-esteem and depression. Our ability to live a meaningful life in the direst of consequences was famously and beautifully described by Viktor Frankl, a young doctor sent to the Nazi concentration camps where most of his family were murdered. From his experiences in the camp Frankl concluded there were three important ways to develop a meaningful life; to create or work towards something engaging; a project, goal, team or cause, for example; to make connections with others; to explore different ways of experiencing the suffering that is inevitably part of life.
He (who) knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’ ‘Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl.
When I closed my photography business in 2014 (because it didn’t feel meaningful and creative enough, amongst other reasons) I was left in a kind of existential limbo. With my children nearly grown, my husband at the apex of his career and often away, I felt redundant. I felt like a satellite in other people’s lives, but my sense of self had all but vanished. I felt acutely aware of suffering and injustice everywhere I looked, and completely unable to change anything. I’m sure it’s no coincidence either that this crisis hit me just before my 50th birthday. 50, as they say, is the new shitstorm, or at least it was for me.
For some time I’d been conscious of this nagging question. What is the point? of me, of life? The nagging became unignorable, but I no longer knew what I wanted to do with my life. (I fact did know, but that knowledge was buried deep by the shoulds and musts of all the judgement and advice I’d ever received, from childhood well into adulthood. Another story…) Like so many other famous, infamous and unknown creatives I craved sometimes unhealthy pleasurable experiences to fill a void in life- food, alcohol, drugs, sex, Netflix binges (I may have indulged in some , or all of these- I’ll let you use your imagination ???? )- but I see now these habits are really just a search for meaning , and despite the temporary pleasure, these dependencies often leave us feeling worse, way worse. On the other hand, making a difference to someone else or achieving a goal feels great in a more lasting way because it gives us a sense of meaning. That’s where the real rush is found. Calorie-free.
My mid-life crisis resulted in a pretty deep and intense depression, which I could only pull myself out of with a) drugs. b) a long course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy c) lifestyle changes- especially diet, exercise and sleep. and d) a long hard look at what I felt I was on this earth to do. At the time, all I wanted to do was paint, but it felt like just part of my therapy and not ‘serious’ enough for a life purpose. But something was beginning to change, which I didn’t quite understand. And, when I don’t know the answer to something, I read. A lot. A frenzy of self-exploration and philosophical enquiry led me to, amongst others, Eric Maisel.
Maisel, a creativity coach ( he’s actually a master of many trades in the field of writing, coaching and creativity) explains it well. We must, he says, DECIDE on rather than SEEK our life purpose. Life purpose is not a given, but instead is all about intent. Meaning, on the other hand, is a psychological experience. For example, my intent is to live a calm and content life, but today I am feeling chaotic and disgruntled. My intentions are sound and consistent through all of life’s ups and downs, though my short term experiences may not be. So I must take responsibility for making meaning by seizing any opportunity I can to engage in those activities that provide those ‘meaningful moments.’
These are the areas in which I am prepared to invest heavily, so that I might maximise the possibility of a meaningful life. I can’t make it happen, but I can increase the chances, if I spend my time wisely. For me, this looks like spending time in the following ways-
- Self expression-Painting and creating art. Sharing, looking at and talking about art, writing/ researching/ curating information.
- Being in nature and feeling a connection to the landscape.
- Walking, yoga, time alone, thinking space.
- Intense conversations, small groups or 1:1, with people who really listen and ‘get me’.
- Nurturing close relationships.
- Self-actualisation/self-discovery. Learning, leading, sharing.
- States of being- fulfilment, calmness, creatively energised, feelings of awe, gratitude, passion and compassion.
Your list of meaning opportunities may be different, but it’s a great exercise to go through. Ask yourself- What do you enjoy? What are you good at? What did you spend hours doing or dreaming about as a child? What do you really care about? What, or who would you take to the streets for? Who do you admire? What feels IMPORTANT? What do you have the resilience to stick at despite the high risk of failure and disappointment? (That’s a big clue).
My list has evolved as a result of years of sometimes painful self-reflection and doubly painful rejection of that people-pleasing side of my nature that caused me to offer meaning only to others and not to myself. It’s taken me half a century to notice that if I am forced by circumstance to spend long periods of time being busy doing tasks that hold no meaning, I become irritable and unmotivated and in the long term, somewhat depressed.
Of course, I’m lucky- with some adjustments here and there I’m now able to spend increasing amounts of time living my purpose. There are many jobs that do stifle creativity, (I’ve done them) and these can be immensely dissatisfying. Being trapped in such a job can lead to frustration and even depression. If you can’t immediately get out of this kind of work, can you craft a creative outlet outside of work? Creativity is known to offer meaning and purpose at many levels, it doesn’t have to be a career, or even a vocation- just a way to spend a few moments apart from the hustle.
Making art is not just a job for me- it’s one of the ways I try and make meaning of the world- both my own inner world and the world beyond. It’s essential. It helps me find answers and search for better questions. Meaning for me is living my best, authentic self, using fully all my capabilities, talents, emotional intelligence, empathy, sensitivity and intuition, and all this ends up in art. When I’m engaged in a task that ticks these boxes, that’s where the passion and drive come into full force. In those moments, I reign supreme, vibrantly human, I am unstoppable! THAT is my purpose.
“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion” Simon Sinek ‘Start with Why’.
There’s a huge amount of stress in our young ones to determine and commit at an early age to their goals and careers. I think we forget that the search for meaning can take a lifetime. Like art itself, the process, the journey is the meaning.
Even having written this I STILL wonder whether my life as an artist has meaning. There’s a nagging doubt that making art is indulgent at best, fraudulent at worst. I’m still painfully conscious of the suffering and injustice, but I also know that continuing to make art is the best chance I have of keeping meaning alive, for me and with any luck, to inspire others to do the same.
“To create something new, something that rings with novelty or beauty and harmony is a powerful antidote to a sense of meaninglessness” Irvin Yalom, existential psychotherapist.
So, if you’re feeling down about the world, take action. Sing, write, paint, love. Make your own meaning. Good Luck x