Help me navigate my crisis of meaning
November 19, 2008 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Help me navigate my crisis of meaning

Ever since I turned 32, I have suffered a crisis of meaning. I feel like I’m treading water, breathing through my days, waiting for my life to begin. Only I don’t know what my new life looks like, and I cannot even catch glimpses of it. My bones ache to have children, and I set my life up to have children at this age, but they are not an option for me right now, as I’m single and single women in my country cannot adopt. I am not strong enough to foster, to be loving and losing children. And so I must make an alternate life while I wait for the life I think I know will satisfy me to begin.

Only nothing feels enough. It just doesn’t feel meaningful. I have gotten to the stage where I feel that if I can’t have children (a.k.a. find meaning, a purpose, a personally compelling reason to live, something bigger than myself to believe in and give myself over to in entirety) I would rather consider extinguishing my flame. But then I wonder at the selfishness of my desires! Who do I think I am that I can bring a child into this world to give my life meaning, a purpose, and so on? And who do I think I am that I think I have the right to set my own expiry date without a thought for the people who love me? When it comes down to it, who is anyone to purposefully bring another person to life, cast them into the world, bring them into being because they want “them”? I am at odds with the world, and myself and can’t find a reason to believe in my future.

During my twenties, I tried to outrun myself after a very verbally abusive relationship of four years during which I lived with my ex. Running was pleasurable in many ways. I moved to the other side of the world and lived in London for six years. I backpacked solo to many countries, and threw myself into each experience, seeking out the truth with my camera so that I would never feel alone. I also partied very hard, and drank until I blacked out every weekend when I wasn't travelling. I didn’t have a degree, something I felt terribly ashamed of, and so I also worked exceptionally hard on creating a career where I could write for a living (which I did.) Life was not always rosy, but I was constantly distracted. Then I thought it was time to return home, to start a family, to put down roots with my own family again.

I like being home, I like the comparative quality of life, and I like that even though my family live many hours away, we are living in the same country again. But during the two and a half years I have been home, l have travelled abroad twice in a rather desperate bid to distract myself from my growing crisis of meaning. Both times I seized the experience with a new kind of daring. I lived like there was no tomorrow because I didn’t care if I died. Not in a suicidal way, or even a numb way, but in a “whatever” way. During my teens I was suicidal, which prevented me from making friends in high school, but after years of psychotherapy and meds that is well behind me. This is different. It’s a lackadaisical disrespect for my life, as if I am willing to push myself as deeply as I can to feel as deeply as I can, and in many ways I am daring myself to die. For example when I am at home I carelessly cross roads, sometimes I just walk out in front of cars on less busy roads, and mentally challenge (warped, I know) them to stop in time.

In the past year I backpacked solo through third world countries and felt intensely alive, just as I always do when I travel, but I took very few precautions, so I was often “high” on fear. I also feel alive when I travel because it’s not real life, it’s not my real life, I have no responsibilities, and most of the time I’m so intent on surviving that I don’t have to think about my existence, I just “do.” I’m operating on pure instinct and puzzling over seeming trivialities such as how to post a letter. More travel appeals to me as an escape, and a means to define myself (people seem inordinately impressed by others who pay for a plane ticket, board a plane and wander around another country.) But it’s not what I truly want. It’s a fun diversion for me, but it’s not my meaning. If I were to move abroad again or travel again for a long period of time I would be putting off the inevitable self-reckoning, as I have done for a decade or more, and would soon come face-to-face with myself again.

Career wise I have scaled back to part-time hours in a bid to find meaning. I abhor the pointlessness and falseness of the corporate world, so tried working for a charity to find meaning, but I could not. Unfortunately, I felt more unnecessary than ever pushing paper in a rich world, completely disconnected to the people who needed help, while observing political infighting that prevented even the simplest things from being done in a timely manner. I also undertook training for a crisis phone line, but due to my crisis of meaning, it only exasperated it. So now two days a week I write my novel in order to one day be truly seen and known (I love writing stories but those are the reasons I wish to be read by others). Only it is a slow process, and a rather emotionally gruelling process, and it bothers me that I am not grateful that I can do this two weekdays every week. I spend many hours in tears, wondering when my real life will begin (ridiculous, I know.) It feels more like a breakthrough than a breakdown, but I am impatient to emerge from the ashes, and fearful that I won’t.

I live by myself, and have found it difficult making new friends since I have returned home. I had no friends before I went abroad, as I had only my ex-boyfriend. I have a few acquaintances, but find it hard to deepen the relationships. I am also naturally quiet and reserved which I personally don’t mind now, but others sometimes seem to. I used to drink myself into oblivion each weekend because it allowed me to come across as sociable and meant I could effectively wipe out two days of the week, but I gave up drinking a year ago as I was tired of embarrassing myself. I am now trying to be authentic at all times and finding it quite exhausting getting by without a crutch. I feel naked and long to have a partner or close friend by my side to walk into a room of people with! I avoid going to social events by myself if there are groups of people present, such as workmates, as I feel overwhelmed by the effort required to socialise with so many people for so long. I do however go to classes and art galleries and lunches and dinners and all such events where I am only required to talk to a few people at a time.

When it comes to love, I long for the comfortable love that comes after romantic love, and I would like nothing more than to meet a best friend whom I could love for the rest of my life. But the only way I have been able to fall for men in the past is if we have been friends first, for quite some time, and I don’t have any male friends! Internet dating I found soul destroying. I have closed myself off and I don’t know how to open up again.

How can I open up my heart? How can I stop feeling that my life is meaningless? How can I stop feeling the urge to run? How can I stop daring myself to die? I realise this forum isn't a substitute for therapy, but I'm interested in your responses.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
You need a therapist. Go find one, and if he or she doesn't seem to be helping you, go find another one.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:55 AM on November 19, 2008

You need a therapist. Go find one, and if he or she doesn't seem to be helping you, go find another one.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:55 AM on November 19

People existed for thousands of years without therapists, why is this now the answer to everything?

No one walks around in the sunshine anymore? Goes for a jog? Feeds the squirrels?
posted by plexi at 6:58 AM on November 19, 2008 [8 favorites]

Low grade depression? Are you still on anti depressants? If not, that might be worth a trial.
posted by Brennus at 6:59 AM on November 19, 2008

People existed for thousands of years without therapists, why is this now the answer to everything?

People existed for thousands of years without permanent homes, modern heating, running water supply, medicine etc. etc. Does this mean we shouldn't be using them? All those things are supposed to make life easier than it used to be, so is a therapist (whether or not they do is a different question).
posted by Brennus at 7:02 AM on November 19, 2008 [14 favorites]

In all seriousness, you sound like an introvert who until recently (you may still) thought / think that a child will bring some extraordinary revelation into your life. Talk to any mother of a newborn, and you'll find the only revelation they've had is that they can survive with roughly 15 seconds of sleep a night... Please consider that there are many ways to accomplish something with your life beyond simply procreating.

It sounds like you've lived a wonderful life as an individual who's beginning to realize how interdependent we as a species are. We humans crave connection to other humans in one way or another. Some of us find that at the local bar "randomly kissing guys" or by going to the art galleries you mentioned. One idea is to simply force yourself to be sociable - to act as though whatever interests you about someone becomes the #1 priority to find out more about. Another idea is to consider what you've learned in your travels - can you pass on any advice about places to go, ways to get around? What else are you passionately interested in? People find purpose in whatever they do.

IANAC (I Am Not A Christian), but reading "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren gave me a good mindset about seeking a life purpose.

On preview, I see Faint of Butt's suggestion - and it can't hurt. Anti-depressants may have their place as well - but some lifestyle changes can't hurt as well.
posted by chrisinseoul at 7:10 AM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

> People existed for thousands of years without therapists, why is this now the answer to everything?

Suddenly people have choice. Lots of choice. Too much choice. The world is a complicated place, much more so to most people than it used to be the case. When you're all tangled up, it can be a good idea to have someone who isn't a part of your normal life to look at things and give you a helping hand. Sure, it's not the answer to everything, but if you feel your life lacks direction or purpose then chances are going for a jog won't change that much.
posted by bjrn at 7:15 AM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

This is going to come across as harsh, but you sound kind of arrogant and a little divorced from reality. You seem to have this pre-determined idea of what your life is supposed to be like, and you're very eager to pass judgment on what is and isn't worthy of your time. You start out trying something (a trip, a job) and it turns out to be not like the ideal that you've set up in your mind, so you give it up and despair about the lack of meaning.

I think you need to find a good therapist, and you need to figure out how to let go of these impossible ideals. You need to accept that your life is not going to be "big M" Meaningful - not everyone can cure cancer or stop wars. Try to find "small m" meaning in things like sunlight and making one person smile per day. Small steps. A good therapist can help you do this.
posted by marginaliana at 7:17 AM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Life doesn't have a meaning by itself. You've got to create it. It's a skill which you already have: you're a writer. Apply it to reality.
posted by dhoe at 7:17 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's a small thing, but what jumps out at me is the notion you seem to have that there is your "real" life and there is your other life -- the stuff that you're doing until your "real life" starts (or the stuff you're doing that's preventing your "real life" from starting).

I think what you need to realize is that there is no such distinction: this is your real life.

Even when you're doing something disappointing, or counter-productive, or distracting -- that's your real life. Running away? Your real life. Writing the novel? Real life. You don't have to wait around for your real life to happen; it's already happening.

Accepting that -- embracing that, really -- I think will help. Because, as cheesy as it sounds, to make any kind of change in your life, you have to start where you are. And here you are: right here, in the middle of your real life. Once you are able to wrap your arms around that, you might be able to think about the real difference between where you are and where you one day want to be. But there's no shame in being where you are.
posted by mothershock at 7:20 AM on November 19, 2008 [15 favorites]

Mod note: comment removed - if your question does not directly address the OP, save it or email it - this is not the "is therapy useful/necessary?" thread, don't turn it into one, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:38 AM on November 19, 2008

You are giving up way too quickly, on everything. You take a job, realize it's not great, it doesn't have meaning immediately, and you give up and quit. Life is not a movie. You don't walk into a job and realize that it's your life purpose and suddenly you have all the meaning you need and everything is rosy.

It seems like you've been living life as though it were a movie, a new adventure every month, a new crazy situation, in which you have no responsibilities and ties. It's fun, it's thrilling, but it has done nothing to set you up for what living a meaningful life is really about.

Life is really a long slog through monotony and doubt until one day you see the light. And that light might not even be as great as something like a higher purpose, it might just be a squirrel that eats that nut out of your hand, finally. It might be a man who strikes you as the most interesting and perfect creature you've ever seen. It might be a sport you do once out of curiosity, only to realize that you want to dedicate the next significant portion of your life to pursuing it. In the end, all these things are about sharing. Sharing with the squirrel, sharing with the man, sharing with the others who play a sport. It's all about impacting something other than the space inside your head.

These things you find, they will never be as dangerous, as daring, as carefree, as your movie-style life of traveling and partying. The question is, you already know what it's like to look back from age 32 and realize that you have done nothing meaningful for anyone but yourself, do you want to look back and realize that from 42?
posted by zhivota at 7:59 AM on November 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Your post affected me deeply because it reminded me quite a lot of myself and it's allowed me to put into words some things that up until now I've said only to myself.

Before I start, though, I'm not sure I believe you when you say that you are no longer suicidal, because your post reads like a dare to the universe to give you a reason to keep living. This is the equivalent of lying down on the tracks and daring a train to come. There are plenty of ways to extinguish yourself, and dying is only one of them. Running away is another. It is quite possible that your existential crisis is a symptom of depression, and not its cause. I would advise you to seek counseling and/or psychiatry immediately. It certainly won't make your life any worse to do that, and you may discover that the crushing longing that you feel gets much of its weight from depression and not from reality. Ask me how I know.

So. Moving on.

I think what you are looking for is not Meaning, but meaninfulness, a sense of purpose, a sense of having a life worth living. Some people find a sense of purpose early on -- we all know that guy that wanted to be a doctor since he was ten. Great. Good for him. His career feeds his sense of purpose. But his career choice isn't his purpose. It's incidental. Where you live and what you do for a living, these things are merely the circumstances of life.

The reality is that we're all basically the same and we all have some sense of the same essential purpose: be loving, take care of those in need, seek justice, be mindful, let go. This is the message of every world religion and every humanistic philosophy. Everything else is just details. The happy people are the people who execute that purpose in a way that suits their talents and their temperaments. The unhappy people are the ones who think they deserve more than that.

Some of us, the lucky ones, have to stumble around for a long time looking for a place that works for us. It's important to remember that the stumbling around is part of life, too. Your new life has already begun. You're in it, and you're just as capable of being happy here as you are anyplace else. And it's those of us who stumble around for a long time who end up in the really interesting places. That guy who knew he was going to be a doctor since was ten has only ever been a doctor. How many things have YOU been?

We delude ourselves into thinking that we must have some PARTICULAR purpose, that our life must have some PARTICULAR meaning. But it doesn't! This is just your ego trying to convince itself that it's the center of the universe. Your ego isn't the center of the Universe, and neither are you. And that sounds pretty banal and sad until you realize that this is actually a wonderful thing because it means that you are now free to do whatever you want without worrying how important it is, or how awesome it makes you, or if it's the "right" thing.

The world is beautiful and messy and harmful and sad and full of wonder. I do not know why it is this way. I do not know who made me or why, or if there is a why. I do not know why I was born with a crushing propensity for sadness and longing. But I DO know that I am capable of love and of awe and of joy, and I also know that I am capable of enduring a great deal of pain. I cherish this insane universe -- and I have two children who I deliberately brought into it because I wanted to give them a chance to cherish it, too.
posted by vraxoin at 8:31 AM on November 19, 2008 [31 favorites]

This jumped out at me: you "tried working for a charity to find meaning, but [ ] could not." Maybe try again? It sounds like you are very much up in your own head, puzzling about daily activities, just marking time, and that is not where you want to be. Volunteering for something that is meaningful to you (maybe something involving children, like a mentoring program, if that is where your interests lie) might help you engage with your life and make human connections both with the children and with other volunteers, that are missing now. It may also provide fodder for your writing, which could be a source of strength. Maybe at some point in the future you would feel strong enough to be a foster parent, which has the potential to have very significant positive impact on a child's life. Perhaps making that (or something else requiring strength that seems out of reach now) an eventual goal and figuring out what you need to do to get there would help you find meaning.
posted by *s at 8:40 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Stop running and pick a patch of ground and call it home. Oh wait, you've done that, so you're actually somewhere in the process of doing what you want. It sounds very much like you're doing good, but you're also realizing that it's hard and scary and at times seems impossible, like you can't go on with it for another minute. That's normal!

You seem as though you can't stand being in one place, in your own skin and so you travel the world, drink and write and this and that in order find a sense of peace. But YOU aren't at peace, so everything else feels like ghost like: you can see that other people are happy with these things, but you aren't and your restless nature propels you onward to the next thing that looks like it might fill that hole in you.

Some therapy could give you a sounding board and third party view on what you're doing, especially since you don't have many close friends at the moment. You could also spend time working on your house/home in preparation for you future kids and mate. You might also try The Artist's Way, even though you may not consider yourself an artist. It may seem like New Age Touchy Feely dogma at times, but it's a good, task oriented way of spending time with and getting to the root of yourself (and your creative side). From your description, it seems like what you need most is bit of direction, 'cause you're at least aware of the major issues and are taking some steps to deal with them.

Good luck, it doesn't seem at bad as you think.The journey is hard, but the reward is priceless.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:58 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems like you're perpetually chasing something that you think will bring you solace - a new country, a new job, new travels, new man, a child.


Your suffering comes solely from this chasing. Meditation will help you realize that there's nothing you need to chase. There's nothing out there to find. There is nothing out there that will complete you. Like dhoe said, you have to create your own meaning.
posted by desjardins at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

It may be where you live, as is (partly) the case for me. It's nice to be near family, yes, I know. But if you can't find anyone who is interested in the things you do, if you can't find anyone who will even listen to you, if you can make friends in faraway places but you find it increasingly hard to make friends at home (like me), then you've got to go.
posted by symbollocks at 9:29 AM on November 19, 2008

Find something that sounds interesting. Learn how to do it.

It's going to suck at some point, and you're going to get tired of doing it, or not doing it well. Work through that.

Learn to do it well. Work through the frustrations and make it your own. Then repeat this.

You can live your life trying to do things that you have assigned importance, or you can find importance in your life.
posted by mikeh at 9:42 AM on November 19, 2008

Note: I've written similar advice before on AskMe, so please forgive the repetition.

Stop romanticizing your life! You are not a character in a Jane Austen novel; you're also not Siddhartha, setting out on a great spiritual journey. You're an animal. You get hungry; you fart; you crave sex; you piss; you get colds; you need to be touched; you shit; you get lonely... These "animal" urges are profoundly felt, even if they're not classically thought of as profound. Deal with them square on before you start dealing with big, operatic quests.

You're doing what teenagers do: when they get depressed, they act like it's some kind of existential angst, rather than admitting that they're just pissed off because they got grounded, dumped or because they failed a test. Only you do it much better than most teenagers, because you're super smart and you're a fantastic writer. You almost conned me, and I'm a pretty nuts and bolts guy. You sound like you're really good at conning yourself.

I urge you to rewrite your question along these lines: "I don't have a boyfriend or husband, and I'm lonely. I desperately want a child, but I don't know how to have one without a man in my life. Without a boyfriend and baby, I don't know what to do with myself. I feel like dying. What should I do?"

Of course, pairing down your problem doesn't solve it, but it's the first step. You can't know if you should be digging with a shovel or a spade until you call a spade a spade.

YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED TO ROMANTICIZE YOUR PROBLEMS. From now on, talk about them succinctly, using monosyllables whenever possible. Talk about them as biological urges and fears. Romanticizing them is a way to convince yourself that you're dealing with them when what you're actually doing is avoiding them. It's a drug, just like the alcohol that you no longer drink.

As many people here have suggested, I believe you should talk to a therapist. But he'll have a hard time helping you unless you cut through the Seeker In The Wilderness shit and admit that you have flesh, blood, genitals and sweat glands.
posted by grumblebee at 10:43 AM on November 19, 2008 [27 favorites]

Here is a series of podcasts by Dr. Eric Maisel called Your Purpose-Centered Life which addresses you problem directly. I found them helpful, even though he is a raging atheist.

You might go to the library and look for the Tal Ben Shahar's book Happier. It is full of Positive Psychology tasks that help people become and remain happier.

Oh yeah, and see a counselor if you can, it might save you lots of time over working this out on your own.
posted by RussHy at 10:49 AM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

My bones ache to have children, and I set my life up to have children at this age, but they are not an option for me right now, as I’m single and single women in my country cannot adopt.

desjardins might be right. But I take you at your word here. I'd recommend you take yourself seriously and make this happen. Your sense of what you want your life to be now includes starting a family. You've given a bunch of reasons you can't get that, so of course you're depressed. You've told yourself your dreams are impossible. Don't take that. Fight back, find a way! Millions of people find mates and start families, and you can too. Network. Ask your family to set you up. Join clubs to meet people in real life. Post internet ads like "wonderful, romantic woman seeks a man to build a life together and start a family." I don't know what you found "soul destroying" about internet dating, but it's mainly a numbers game, not a battle with the infernal forces of the universe. You'd rather "extinguish your flame" than go on internet dates? If your life is supposed to include starting a family, go after this -- don't sit around telling yourself your dream is impossible while hoping to find meaning via random new stuff while romanticizing suicide, jeez.

Meanwhile, put the rest of your time and energy into your mental health. Sort out the alcoholism thing (while I commend you for quitting cold turkey, you may need more help here than you realize to learn other coping skills, so I'm not surprised you are "finding it quite exhausting getting by without a crutch"-- join AA). You talk about your earlier escapism, and your abusive relationship is another red flag. Get therapy and take up meditation.

One more random thought -- it takes a long time to build friendships, moreso at your age, moreso if you're quiet, moreso if you lost a bunch of friendships while in your bad relationship. Don't despair about it; just think about friendships as trees that take a long time to grow, and keep planting. But do find ways to strengthen the acquaintanceships.
posted by salvia at 11:24 AM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I identify with a lot of what you wrote, and where you're at now. The wanting to have a partner, the wanting to have children (and the associated "what if it doesn't happen?"), the endless travel/moving/seeking, the feelings of loneliness, this "crisis of meaning" of which you speak. Yeah, I get all that. I've never had the urge to end my life, though I've definitely had those deep dark times where day to day life felt really pointless and joyless.

Today, I'm childless and single. It's not really where I want to be, but it is what it is. So I am making the most of being single, because, you know, now is all you have. I could just sit around fretting about it day in and day out. Then I can look back on those days a year from now as wasted time. Or I could be out having fun or doing something know, living life. Most of the time I'm able to choose the latter.

It sounds like you could use a couple more friends in your life. Making friends does take work, especially if you're naturally introverted, but it gets easier with time. You say that you attend dinners and such; maybe there is one person who you could invite out for tea or check out some galleries some time? Start small. Don't expect too much. I have a wide group of friends and some of them I really only see in the context of some activity; I've got a hiking friend, I've got a knitting pal, etc. But these kinds of connections broaden my life.

People mention therapy. It's benefited me greatly in the past, and I continue to rely on it now. Please seek it out if you're able. I've worked on issues of low self-esteem and lack of sufficient love for myself, and I see a lot of that in what you wrote too (the talk about walking into busy intersections certainly shows a lack of regard for yourself). You must love yourself first before you can adequately love another human being, whether it be a partner or a child.
posted by medeine at 12:08 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just want to second *S's point that just because you worked for a charity and didn't find meaning there, doesn't mean you should give up on charitable work. Whatever charity you tried might not have been the right issue or cause for you (just like people who are looking for religion might not find a spiritual connection with the first church or temple they walk into.)

I personally think the best way to inject meaning into your life in a non-selfish manner is to help others. For you specifically, helping kids, or better yet --at-risk kids-- maybe will help you stop romanticizing parenthood as much, and/or may give you the meaningful feeling of making a big positive influence in the life of a child.

I WOULD have suggested getting artificially inseminated, but it sounds like your issues need to be addressed before you can be a really stable parent. If you had a kid and then found that they didn't automatically make all your troubles go away, would you revert to your old ways and "run away?" Live life on the edge? Consider suicide? You ALREADY have a family that would hurt terribly over such an act, yet that hasn't dissuaded you from considering it in the past, so I worry that if you had kids without addressing your own issues first, you'd simply be expanding the potential circle of pain to those who depend on you.

Besides, the thing about having kids is, it's a lot of pressure for a child (once they're self-aware) to be the sole reason their mother is living. What if you and your child don't get along? What would you do when he/she goes through a rebellious period and shirks your love and devotion? Will those things send you spiraling into a spiritual void again?

I'm just bringing this up to point out that even if you DO manage to get pregnant and have the kids you've always dreamed of-- your troubles won't go away from an external catalyst like that, even though society feeds us that line all the time. Your problems are only going to be resolved by you internally re-framing your expectations for your life, and finding some way to find fulfillment that doesn't rely on other people loving and needing you unconditionally forever.
posted by np312 at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't want to sound rude by asking this, but -- are you independently wealthy? Do you have a trust fund?

Maybe I'm way off, but I'm trying to figure out how (as a writer, no doubt) you could afford to travel all over the world, spend lots of money on booze, and now you're working part-time?

It does sound like you have a lot of extra time to navel-gaze. That's all well and good but it sounds like you're having a hard time relating to other people.

Most of us are tied up with working most of the day to try to support ourselves and keep going. We try to find meaning as we can, and when we have time to.

If someone's supporting you financially at 32, maybe it's time to cut them off. Work hard, support yourself, and gain confidence and meaning from your sheer independence.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 12:25 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

About selfishness: you can organize your thoughts in such a way so that everything is selfish: Eating? Selfish! Trying to keep YOURSELF alive. Not eating? Selfish! Starving yourself to death and so hurting those who love you. Giving to a charity? Selfish! You're trying to make YOURSELF feel like a good person...

If everything is selfish then "being selfish" is just another term for "doing stuff." The question is what's wrong with being selfish? Seriously ask yourself with that. I know we all have a knee-jerk reaction to the word, but really think about it. Are ALL selfish behaviors wrong, just because they're selfish? Isn't breathing selfish? Does that make it wrong?

Surely, if your goal is to be a good person, what you really care about is not doing harm. You don't want to hurt other people. (By the way, you count as a person, so you shouldn't want to hurt yourself, either.) It's sometimes hard to figure out what is harmful, so people fall back on the "selfish=bad" equation. But that's because it's easier, not because it makes sense. If I can do something selfish without hurting anyone, what's wrong with that? Today, I spent an hour on Metafilter because it was fun. It was a totally selfish act. Who did I hurt by doing it? No one. So it wasn't a bad act.

Sometimes it's less clear than that. Sometimes it may be worth hurting someone else a LITTLE BIT. I'm including "inconveniencing" in my definition of "hurting." For instance: if I REALLY REALLY want to see a movie that I've waited six months to see, I'm going to inconvenience you a little bit by getting in line to see it -- if you get in line after I do. If I don't go see the movie, there will be one less person in line and you'll get your ticket faster. So I AM doing harm by selfishly going to see the movie. But it's a tiny bit of harm, and it doesn't do any serious damage. And it will result in me being really happy.

Your goal should be to MAXIMIZE THE AMOUNT OF HAPPINESS IN THE WORLD. And you count as a person in the world, no more and NO LESS than everyone else. If you take yourself out of the equation, you're doing the math wrong! (If you hurt yourself, you're not maximizing the amount of happiness in the world.) So...

-- get in line to see the movie = a TON of happiness for me. A tiny bit of unhappiness for you.

-- don't get in line to see the movie = a TON of unhappiness for me. A tiny bit of happiness for you.

If you substitute Sam and Ed for you and me, you get...

-- get in line to see the movie = a TON of happiness for Sam. A tiny bit of unhappiness for Ed.

-- don't get in line to see the movie = a TON of unhappiness for Sam. A tiny bit of happiness for Ed.

It's easy to see that the first option is better. It maximizes the amount of happiness in the world. And it makes no difference if YOU are Sam or I am Sam. The first option is still better.

Obviously, ethical choices aren't always this simple, but the key is to stop thinking about selfishness, start thinking about maximizing happiness, and include yourself in your calculations!

As for having a child: having a child is NOT dooming another human being to unhappiness. Maybe YOU are unhappy, but that doesn't mean that existence equals misery. That's exactly the sort of romanticizing I warned you against in my last post. Your experience is not the uber experience. Your experience is not your kid's experience.

I'm not 100% sure that having a kid will make you as happy as you think it will, but let's say it will. Okay. So I see several scenarios:

1. You without a kid = 1 unhappy person.

2. You with an unhappy kid = 1 happy person (you) and 1 unhappy person (kid).

Actually, if your kid winds up unhappy, you'll probably be unhappy too, so that should really be 2 unhappy people.

3. You with a happy kid = 2 happy people.

So you need to do all you can to make sure 3 happens. It's not impossible. There are tons of classes, books and examples of people raising happy kids. Of course, 3 might not happen. 2 might happen. Life is a crapshoot, but you can sway the odds in your favor.

Is it unfair to bring a kid into such a horrible world? That assumes that the world is horrible. Yes, there are cancers and con men; there are also symphonies and strawberries! The complex truth is that there are both bad and good things in the world.

So is it fair to bring a kid into a world in which there are both bad and good things? To me, that's an unanswerable question. I'd say it's fair IF you treat the kid well and do everything in your power to help him have a good life.

Regardless of the answer, you're an animal. I brought this up earlier, but I'll say it again: you're an animal. You're built to reproduce, so of course you want to reproduce. (Some of us don't want to, but we're the odd men and odd women out.) It's extremely natural for people to want to have children. It's the most natural thing in the world. I'm not one to say that natural always equals good, but we're talking about something almost as natural as breathing and eating. Don't romanticize it by turning your yearning into some sort of cosmic drrrraaaaahhhhmaaa. You want to have kids because you're built to want to have kids.

Fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.

Is a bird selfish for flying?
posted by grumblebee at 1:22 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

GOOD GOD! I could have written this post but for a less worn passport, lack of suicidal tendencies as a teenager, and my lack of a uterus. I mean, point after point after point - it's uncanny. I'm so sorry you're going through this. The one thing that's evident is that therapy and meds may be behind you, but they didn't do the trick. Having a life crisis doesn't necessarily have to indicate depression, but you certainly sound depressed

-history of suicidal depression
-not seeing a logical reason to keep living for your own sake (even if not actively suicidal)
-guilt about hurting your loved ones the only reason to remain alive
-not taking precautions - daring life to kill you by tempting fate
--impulsivity (e.g., walking in front of moving cars)
--irrationality (e.g., willing them to stop)
-no feeling of worth from life, even from noble work that should seem to impart it
-no joy from life
-always running away, "here" is never where you feel you should be
-finding no meaning in life and trying to get it by proxy
-social withdrawal, limited social capital
-alcohol reliance (lurking if not active)

I'd say there's a good chance you're still depressed, whatever else is happening amongst that basket of factors.

I did therapy and meds for years with very little result beyond awful side effects. Self help, exercise, diet, career changes, changes of scenery, hobbies, etc., too. I'm about to try therapy again because, like you, I just can't come unstuck and don't know what else to do. Over a decade lost in pointless limbo, no closer to reconciliation with life. You wrote my story better than I could.

You have unasked and/or unanswered questions inside you, likely some distorted perceptions, and probably imbalanced chemistry. Some of the advice on this board is the usual and expected snap-out-of-it naivety from people who have no way of knowing how different life can be from behind the veil of depression - same world, same inputs, different reality. I was the same way until it happened to me. I could not have imagined.

Some of the other advice might be helpful and is some of the same stuff you'll hear from a therapist, if at a higher level and in more detail. But you need to work someone with training and experience over time to make progress on this. No bit of advice that starts with "Why don't you just..." is going to do it for you. No simple statement here will snap you out of it. You have to take a multi-pronged approach of excavating down to root causes, while questioning assumptions, while reframing perspective, while challenging irrational thought, while facing issues you've avoided, while making disciplined changes in behavior, and possibly working at the chemical level. Your mind and heart need to actively work on these things over time with regular checkpoints. Let a professional guide you in this. Will it work? I don't know. I've learned a lot about myself through therapy, but haven't yet figured out how to use it to reconcile with life. But I'm not aware of a better option. Doing nothing does nothing, though.

Meanwhile recognize that you can always make it another minute, another hour, another day, another month, another year. That doesn't say anything about being happy or resolved or living a life that feels worth living, but it means you don't have to be overwhelmed by your feelings at any given moment. You can pick the time interval of your choice to endure until and cut off trying to see beyond that. Once you get there you can see what you can see and then decide your next step. My former therapist's response to a desperate exclamation of "I can't stand it anymore" was "yes you can." (wonder if she worked with Obama?!). I wanted to punch her at the time she said that but she was right. I guess the response is "yeah but I don't WANT to stand it anymore." When life is only hurt, why keep doing that to yourself? That may be where your guilt about hurting your family can come in handy. "I have resolved not to hurt my family, so whether I want to stand it anymore or not, I'm going to. And I can." So then you're just left with, "Well what am I going to do right now?" And that's where some of the simpler answers and advice can come in. "I can't decipher the truth of existence right now, but I can go for a run/coffee/visit/shower/etc." That can get you through the acute pangs of despair and desperation every time.

I wish you lived here so we could hang out! I have the exact same desire for the friends-first relationship that I can't get due to not wanting to do anything, say anything, or see anyone. I wish you a good life.
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:31 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

One thing that I learned from my own therapy is that I don't need a boyfriend or husband to be happy. I can be happy just by myself.

Here are several books about being happy and single. Pick one or many up, or get them from the library. I like to share them with single friends as well.

Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After

The Bridal Wave: A Survival Guide to the Everyone-I-Know-Is-Getting-Married Years

The Singlehood Phenomenon: 10 Brutally Honest Reasons People Arent Getting Married

Living Alone and Loving It: A Guide to Relishing the Solo Life

The Single Girl's Manifesta: Living in a Stupendously Superior Single State of Mind

Better Single Than Sorry: A No-Regrets Guide to Loving Yourself and Never Settling

Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics

Also consider this book:

The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women

As you can tell, when I have an issue, experience, or problem, I love to read about it. It helps me to learn about myself, and it also helps to know that there are lots of other people with the same problems, issues, and feelings. I hope that one or many of these books will help you too.
posted by IndigoRain at 2:50 PM on November 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

To second what sondrialiac said, I wouldn't be surprised if you wouldn't be properly diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. It's amazing the difference a few hundred milligrams of lamictal can make...
posted by vraxoin at 3:10 PM on November 19, 2008

volunteer. you'll do some good (even if your life feels meaningless, at least you're spending your time doing something worthwhile) and meet people. and find a therapist.

i felt like you for many, many years. for me, the solution was to find a job i like at a university (even if it is a dumb job, at least i am helping people work toward a higher purpose) and fall in love. also, drugs.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:33 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

We delude ourselves into thinking that we must have some PARTICULAR purpose, that our life must have some PARTICULAR meaning. But it doesn't! This is just your ego trying to convince itself that it's the center of the universe. Your ego isn't the center of the Universe, and neither are you. And that sounds pretty banal and sad until you realize that this is actually a wonderful thing because it means that you are now free to do whatever you want without worrying how important it is, or how awesome it makes you, or if it's the "right" thing.

yes, this.

the lack of meaning is only a problem if you believe in meaning or purpose in the first place. relax your grip on the wholly mental conception that meaning is - or should be - inherent in anything, and try to live more in the moment.

right now, i'm munching on a lebanese sweet made of semolina, coconut, rosewater & almond. it has no meaning, but it tastes fucking great. if the weather's nice on the weekend, i think i'll go for a swim in an ocean rockpool. and there was a pretty thunderstorm at midnight last night. sooner than i know it, i'll be back in burma. all of these things (and more) are wonderful.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:01 PM on November 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your work, hobbies, love, having kids... it's all stuff to pass the time until you die. There is no meaning, no higher purpose, there is no God who's watching out for you, no magical mysterious mystery of faith. Life is a series of games we play to occupy our time and our minds. Tomorrow you'll get up, run around pretending to do something worthwhile just long enough to tucker yourself out for bed again.

(There's something on the other side of my comment but I think it's best if you get there yourself.)
posted by blahtsk at 11:37 PM on November 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

And so I must make an alternate life while I wait for the life I think I know will satisfy me to begin

The key phrase here - in fact, it's what your whole difficulty hinges on - is "I think I know".

Fact is, you don't know what will satisfy you. None of us do.

Fact is, the things we want and the things we enjoy are often not the same things. And that's not philosophy; that's brain science.

So, my tip to you is: spend less time making plans; spend more time noticing what you're enjoying right now; and give up the quest for meaning. Meaning is overrated.

Life is random and wild. Fuck meaning. Pursue enrichment.

And listen to grumblebee, for grumblebee is wise.
posted by flabdablet at 12:35 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Specific example of what I'm talking about:

In the past year I backpacked solo through third world countries and felt intensely alive, just as I always do when I travel

This is what we doctors call "a clue".

but I took very few precautions, so I was often “high” on fear.

Looking back: did being high on fear make your life more or less enjoyable at the time you were high on fear? If more, you're an adrenalin junkie, and perhaps could consider pursuing a career as a war correspondent. If less, you might consider taking a few more precautions in future.

I also feel alive when I travel because it’s not real life

Is so.

it’s not my real life

Is so. Is only life you got. Only get one. It's always your real life. You can't put your life on hold, unless you're asleep.

Don't confuse the life you think you want with the life you're living. Keep them separate in your head. Remind yourself which is the real one. Hint: it's the one you're living.

I have no responsibilities, and most of the time I’m so intent on surviving that I don’t have to think about my existence, I just “do.”

Sounds like that's a mode that actually suits you. Why not do more of that?

I’m operating on pure instinct and puzzling over seeming trivialities such as how to post a letter.

As opposed to puzzling over seeming enormities like How To Find Meaning? Seems perfectly clear to me which is the healthier thing to be puzzling over. Hint: it ain't the quest for meaning.

More travel appeals to me as an escape, and a means to define myself (people seem inordinately impressed by others who pay for a plane ticket, board a plane and wander around another country.)

Fixed that for you.

But it’s not what I truly want.

It's not what you think you want. You could easily be wrong about what you actually want. Give yourself permission to be unconventional.

It’s a fun diversion for me, but it’s not my meaning.

It could be, if you let it. Travel enough, and you will inevitably find yourself in a place where your particular skills and experience are exactly what's required right then and there. You'll know it when you see it, but you will miss it if you go looking for it because at present you have no idea what it looks like.

If I were to move abroad again or travel again for a long period of time I would be putting off the inevitable self-reckoning, as I have done for a decade or more, and would soon come face-to-face with myself again.

Lovely, it's not yourself you're face to face with right now. What you're face to face with right now is a bunch of self-perpetuating romantic emo bullshit that's busy screwing up your mind. Give it the arse. Get back on the road. Don't run away. Run towards.
posted by flabdablet at 12:53 AM on November 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I felt more unnecessary than ever pushing paper in a rich world, completely disconnected to the people who needed help

This is another Clue.
posted by flabdablet at 12:56 AM on November 20, 2008

Hi anon,

I had to check my browser history for yesterday, just to convince myself that I hadn't written this post!

I don't know what the answer is, but there's certainly nothing wrong or abnormal about wanting to feel accepted, needed or for your life to be meaningful.

Happy to commiserate via MeFiMail :)
posted by highrise at 10:30 AM on November 20, 2008

A couple points.

One is about the journey vs. the destination. I think you're right to think that maybe there's something wrong with hoping children will cure your angst. By extension, it's probably wrong to think that the accomplishment of any singular objective will rid you of angst. Instead, you should focus on having a journey that is continuously meaningful. Are you moving in the right direction every day? Are you taking appropriate steps to take care of the children issue? That's the kind of question you want to be asking yourself.

Another point I want to make is, don't seek global change when local change will suffice. You're attacking your entire self, somewhat romantically (as suggested by grumblebee), talking about the whole swath of problems in your life, from meaning, to love issues, to not having friends, etc. Narrow things down a bit. Having an optimistic and resilient mindset means not immediately assuming your problems are pervasive.
posted by philosophistry at 3:32 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey yeah, contact me by MeFiMail too if you ever want to connect, compare stories, bounce ideas, or anything. I'm surprised how much your story resonated with people so closely, and so many people favorited it. When you feel like the only person who feels a very particular way, and feel like a freak or all alone because of it, it seems like a good idea to keep track of the few you do find. They say man is a product of his times, so maybe since there seem to be a good many of us, the causes may be in part systemic as opposed to mysteriously internal, and so maybe some common causes can be isolated and addressed. And if not, I'm sending you good thoughts anyway.
posted by kookoobirdz at 6:49 AM on November 21, 2008

I'm surprised how much your story resonated with people so closely

On the other hand, I just want to say that this is not one of those things where "everyone has to deal with this, it's how life is, get used to it" (not that I think that is what kookoobirdz or anyone is saying, but it could maybe come off like that). The more I think about this post, the more I worry a bit about Anon, who seems somewhat depressed and struggling to keep her mood above water. The discussion reminds me a bit of this post where some people said, "yeah, doesn't everyone score high on this test of depression? I scored a 35, and I'm totally normal." And others were saying "No dude, I scored a 6, and I'm having a bad week, so yeah, you're depressed." Spending hours crying is something to take seriously.

While looking for that post, I found this one, which might have some ideas for you about ways to make friends.
posted by salvia at 11:23 AM on November 21, 2008

I'm the original poster -- thank you everyone for your advice, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.

vraxoin: It hadn’t occurred to me that my existential crisis was a symptom of depression, and not its cause. And you were right about meaningfulness -- I am seeking to feel necessary. I've been reading a lot of existential literature lately, but will now explore humanistic philosophy too.

Brandon Blatcher: I have read The Artist’s Way, and found it illuminating. I will make an appointment with my GP on Monday to request a referral to a therapist. Thanks for your recommendation to work towards my future goals by preparing practically for children.

desjardins: Meditation class booked -- a great recommendation that I hope will help provide the shift to mindfulness that I need.

grumblebee: Wow. Thank you for rewriting my question -- you're absolutely spot on in your rephrasing of it. I will admit that I have a right to feel the same core urges as everyone else (no, a bird is not selfish for flying -- love it, it puts my shame in perspective), and I will stop romanticising my life.

salvia and philosophistry: Thank you. I am already undergoing fertility testing on the recommendation of my GP due to related health concerns, and will be taking active steps to make my family dreams a reality. I re-registered for online dating after reading your posts, and will contact acquaintances I’ve neglected. And yes, I am depressed, very. But I have not wanted to admit it.

medeine: Activity partners are a wonderful idea, and I'm going to seek them out.

Flying Squirrel: No, I’m not independently wealthy at all, nor was my life glamorous as another poster suggested! I paid for everything off my own back, worked hard and lived very frugally (read: bought nothing but essentials and lived in squat-like share accommodation with too many people to keep costs down) so I could travel. Heaps of travellers living in London do the same, it's not unusual.

kookoobirdz: I’ll be in touch.

IndigoRain: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve been single for a decade, so I’ve read quite a few of them, and found them most helpful. The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It, The Second Shift, and Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women are also great reads if you’re interested (and haven't read them already!)

flabdablet: Nice point about aiming for enrichment over meaning, I shall do so.

highrise: I’ll be in touch.
posted by isobel at 8:02 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

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