“The holidays and the meaning of life ”


One must immerse oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away- Irvin Yalom

The holiday season can be a time of joy, cheer, parties and family gatherings. But for many people it is a time of self evaluation and existential concerns. The cultural expectations of joy come into direct conflict with the questions on the meaning of life or the lack thereof- that some clients are preoccupied with.

Why am I here? Is this all there is? What can we make of suffering? Am I alone or part of a large whole?
Of course, I have no direct answers to these questions. But in the face of these basic concerns, I start by suggesting bibliothetapy as an attempt to help one become aware that personal meaningfulness in the face of meaninglessness could be the answer to their concerns.
The reading list can be long but I like to discuss in sessions Tolstoy’s “ War and Peace” and “ The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.
Consider the characters respectively:
Pierre, a lost soul, who is transformed when he is captured by Napoleon’s troops and watches five men lined up ahead of him being executed before receiving a last minute reprieve. This near death experience transforms Pierre, who begins to face life with more zest and appreciation of its preciousness.
Or Ivan Ilych’s remarkable insight : “ I am dying so badly because I have lived so badly.”.
In the few remaining days of his life he goes from being a mean-spirited bureaucrat to a generous, empathic and integrated human being.
Eventually, I gently offer my clients the suggestion that they should change the question “Why do I live?” to “ How do I live?”.
I proceed by adding that they might find the metaphor of light helpful. I suggest they imagine themselves as a light with the potential of illuminating the four different aspects of their world – their natural environment , their relationships, their dispositions ( traits, behaviour, thinking) and their values.
I inquire which aspects of their world they tend to illuminate and which aspect they tend to leave in darkness. Hopefully, I can lead them to the understanding that they are free to choose which aspect of their world to illuminate and which not to.
Illumination is a metaphor for engagement. A therapist’s task is not to create engagement for their clients – that, he, she or they cannot do. But we can direct an individual towards removing the obstacles that prevent someone from being more engaged in aspects of their world and from becoming immersed more in it. This is where personal meaningfulness can be found.

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