Meaning in a Meaningless world?
March 3, 2007 9:19 PM   Subscribe

How does one live a meaningful life in a world that one has come to believe is meaningless?

I graduated from college in June after having studied religion and philosophy. I grew up in an extremely religious home and had planned from a young age to become an Episcopal priest.

I came out of the closet to my friends gradually during my senior year and to my family shortly after graduation. Meeting my soulmate was the impetus for this decision; we fell madly in love and grew moreso everyday. I asked him to marry me in August, and we planned to be married in November.

My fiancee died unexpectedly in October due to complications from a childhood illness. For a time I was inconsolable. The dosage of my anti-depressant was increased, and I have since taken a job in a stock room to pay the rent.

All my faith in God has been obliterated, and the shaky foundations of my philosophy and religion have been torn apart.

So here I sit, 23 years old, wishing only for death. All the writings of the existentialists and nihilist philosophers seem true to me, and I'm teetering on the edge of suicide.

That being said, my hope is that someone can point me to a book that will offer some sense of meaning in a meaningless world.

I don't mean some feel-good novel about the triumph of the human spirit, and I certainly don't mean a religious text. I'm looking for an argument as to why it is better to live than to die if nasty, brutish and short life is all there is.

I can't bear existence for fifty more years if this is all there is. Someone point me toward something greater?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (78 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
The only book I want you to open THIS MINUTE is the PHONE BOOK:
Look under suicide hotlines for a local agency or call (800) 273-TALK.
This is important.
posted by Dizzy at 9:28 PM on March 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Help others
It will help you
posted by caddis at 9:31 PM on March 3, 2007

I second Dizzy. You need to talk to someone. Stop reading AskMeFi and call.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:32 PM on March 3, 2007

I'm going to third what people are saying, here, because it seems vitally important. Call and talk to someone, anyone.
posted by !Jim at 9:37 PM on March 3, 2007

An AskMeFi from earlier today might provide some value; the goal is, roughly, "I'd like to find books or movies about feeling happiness while living in a world with plenty of injustice, sorrow, evil, and corruption."

But if you truly feel that you can't go on, do what the others have said: reach out to someone - the suicide hotline, a counselor, a minister, a doctor, SOMEONE - and start talking.

And we expect to hear back from you!
posted by davidmsc at 9:37 PM on March 3, 2007

I'm with caddis - I'm inferring that you're homosexual - and you want to join the clergy.

There are lots of people who's potential pain could be prevented and/or alleviated by someone like you if you choose to go through with entering the priesthood and administer to a flock.

Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased. (Spider Robinson) I strongly believe that axiom as a humanistic utilitarian strong atheist with a science background.

Seek out friends, even those whom you think may not be sympathetic; in times of darkness, those dark thoughts can make you think that good friends aren't so good. I've been there; I've suffered in silence and never knew that I had friends who really cared. If the pain is so great, it's not going to get that much worse if you open yourself to someone and they blow you off, right?

I haven't been around for a while now, but come over to metachat - there're good people there.
posted by porpoise at 9:49 PM on March 3, 2007

I apologize in advance for being unoriginal. But:

There are the philosophical issues and then there are the emotional ones and then there are the medical ones. In some times and places they converge, but right now finding help stepping back from the edge is more important than finding a rationalization for doing so.

If you can give more information about what resources are available or not available to you people on the site may be able respond in more detail.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 9:53 PM on March 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

The cool thing about lack of faith is you get to choose your own meaning for life. Squirrels kind of sums up my take on it.

The shitty thing about suicide is that it doesn't really put an end to your suffering. You just hand it off to those who care about you most deeply and multiplied a thousandfold. Not really the kind of thing you want to be your legacy. To add to the suffering of everyone who knows you. Depression is contagious and it is a killer. Don't do it any favors by helping it work on you and other people. Get some help now.
posted by Manjusri at 9:55 PM on March 3, 2007 [27 favorites]

One thing that sometimes helps me is this thought: it hasn't always been this bad, which means, there is a possiblity however remote that it will not always be this bad, and if I die now, I take away all opportunity to experience happiness and joy and freedom as a creature on this earth, and I suspect that I will not get another chance at it.

Even if this doesn't ring true for you right now, why not let someone else have the chance to try to change your mind? Death can wait until you've tried a few more options.
posted by b33j at 10:01 PM on March 3, 2007

First and most importantly, what everyone else has said.

Without going into detail, let me say that my experiences have in some ways been very similar to yours. With no heaven awaiting us, I figure that the best that we can do is to make this world a better place. We can contribute to the sum total of knowledge, or beauty, or happiness. I think that one of the best ways to do that is to make a difference in individual lives. There are people in this world who care about you, and the world is a better place for your presence in it.
posted by box at 10:20 PM on March 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

What Dizzy said. Also, I think our collective peace of mind could really use a follow-up comment from you.

Assuming that you're less on the brink than your question implies, or that it's tomorrow and you're feeling less like you might take inadvisable and permanent action, you might want to revisit the existentialist philosophers that you mention as contributing to your despair. There's actually plenty of room for joy in their world view; recognizing meaninglessness is can be an exercise in liberation. Maybe the most famous quote from an existentialist is that "One must imagine Sysiphus happy." If that poor bastard can do it, why not you?
posted by longtime_lurker at 10:26 PM on March 3, 2007

Depression is not atheism. Atheism is not depression. I really hope you get help for your mental illness, but whether or not you believe in god does not change the magic and the horror and the genius and the beauty and the complexity of the world.

You say "I'm looking for an argument as to why it is better to live than to die if nasty, brutish and short life is all there is."

Look: This is all you get. All the pain, all the joy, all the opportunities. If you don't make the most of it, you don't get another chance. When you die, it's over. And if you die before your time, you leave the rest of us to struggle with a hole where you used to exist. Think about the hole in your life left by the man you loved. Don't do that to the people you love.

Some of those existentialists you've been reading would have you believe that hell is other people. But joy is other people, too. Think of the joy you have known in your life. God didn't give that to you, you chose to be open to it and it found you on its own. Your beliefs have changed, but the world is the same as it ever was.

Depression is not an existential dilemma. It is not a side effect of atheism. It is a disease. You have it bad. You need help.

Here are some things that people do that can help depression: eat well, spend time with people you care about, get exercise, do good things for others who are less fortunate, get exercise, meditate, be in nature, seek counseling, take prescription medication.

Doing good for others is an especially good way to find meaning in a meaningless world.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:27 PM on March 3, 2007 [11 favorites]

"... With no heaven awaiting us, I figure that the best that we can do is to make this world a better place. We can contribute to the sum total of knowledge, or beauty, or happiness. I think that one of the best ways to do that is to make a difference in individual lives. There are people in this world who care about you, and the world is a better place for your presence in it."
posted by box at 1:20 AM EST on March 4

Well and simply said, box. And worth remembering in the worst times of life, jefficator.
posted by paulsc at 10:55 PM on March 3, 2007

Having thought (and drank) more, I want to add that you are not alone in your difficulties to find meaning in this world. Honestly, this has been something I have been struggling with lately, or maybe all my life, but definitely more so lately.

One of the conclusions I've come to is that really the only source of meaning in my life is people, and how I affect them. I've done some terrible things in my life, hurt people who loved me, and really one of the things that keeps me going is that to quit would be yet another betrayal of those same people. Everyone, no matter what labels society attaches to them, has so much they can add to our world. What you add and how is up to you, but you have to make that choice.


Also, I hope we here back from you soon. I, for one, am a little bit concerned that we haven't.
posted by !Jim at 10:58 PM on March 3, 2007

Yes, do get help!

Now to answer your question:

To me the answer is not in something higher or some philosophy. To me asking "what is the meaning of all this" is not a philosophical question but is the symptom of depression.
So the answer is: take care of your depression.
In the end some experiences in life just are worthwhile in themselves. Without need for external, higher justification or philosophy.

"I can't bear existence for fifty more years if this is all there is." You're depressed now. There is help. Your depression will be dark and painful but it will pass. And you won't feel for fifty more years that "this is all there is", you will feel better.

You are depressed now. You must realise that you're judgement is impaired by your mental state. You should not take big decisions, like suicide, when your judgement is impaired. So the wise thing to do is to put big decisions on hold while you feel like this.

Others have gone through that valley of darkness; they did walk in the sun again. You will too. Hang in there.
posted by jouke at 11:00 PM on March 3, 2007

The meaning of life is what have you done for your fellow man?
posted by caddis at 11:20 PM on March 3, 2007

nthing the suggestion that you call someone RIGHT NOW.

After I lost the person I love best, at six months I was only just beginning to truly grieve...there was no longer a buffer of shock, a buffer of things that needed doing, or any buffer at all - just me and a gaping hole where my heart used to be. Please make a call to someone and tell them you need help.

Everyone grieves differently, and finds meaning in different ways; I can tell you what I read, what I did, and if you like, you can email me (emails in the profile) for the random bits that kept me semi-sane. The truth is, sometimes I took life in five minute chunks. "Just get through the next five minutes....okay, now get through the next five minutes." There is no easy way to get through this part - it hurts, it's going to hurt, and it's going to keep hurting for a while. You have to trust that it won't hurt forever.

Sometimes I had to remind myself how much my love wanted to live, and the shame of knowing I wanted to end what he so desperately wanted to have is all that kept me from making an irrevocable choice.

If you can't live for yourself right now, live for your fiancee.

Get through the next five minutes...and then get through five minutes more.

What you feel right now is not all there is; it is not permanent, no matter how much it feels as though it is. Life WILL have meaning again, and you will find that meaning in little bits, as you're ready, and with time. And you don't have to do it alone - please call for help.
posted by faineant at 11:25 PM on March 3, 2007

Jeff -

I can offer no book.

I can only offer this - you might find something else to life if you wait. If you do not wait, you will not.

Seek help to alleviate your pain. It will take time. But you seem to have the time to give.

If you have lost all faith then you need to stick around and find a purpose. Checking out now will only be giving in, and you don't seem the type. You had the strength to ask here, have the strength to hold on for a while longer.

I can't say it will get better. I can say it will get different.
posted by bh at 11:27 PM on March 3, 2007

This is an awfully hard comment to write. I was where you are, about 7 years ago. I got there in a different way, but I'm pretty sure it's all the same once someone reaches this point.

The most important thing to know is that like I was then, you are depressed. I didn't know I was, probably wouldn't have believed I was if someone had told me, fwiw. But the reason I say it's the most important is that I wasn't thinking right - my life seemed worthless, and if I had gone with my gut feeling, I wouldn't have cared if I lived or died. I just previewed, and jouke put this really well above.

What I decided to do then is the closest thing to a book or other bit of knowledge that I can offer you. I didn't phrase it this way, but my thinking was along the line of the precautionary principle. I really didn't know, and wasn't in any state to try to figure out if life meant anything, so I figured that if it didn't, living a long life would be a very small mistake in the long run, but if it did, staying alive would obviously be the right choice.

That wasn't the end of the problems, of course, but it kept me around and on the rails enough to get through the depression and get to a point where I could really consider what life meant to me. Honestly, I don't feel that's the issue you face right now, but I'll tell you what I decided anyway: for me, like for a lot of others in this thread, it's helping other people. Not to say that I always succeed, but hey - that's life.

What matters right now is to get through this terrible chapter of your life. It really is just a chapter; all the happiness you remember was in circumstances you can't get back, but that doesn't mean you won't have happiness in the future - you will. It won't be over tomorrow, but you will find the meaning you need and your life will continue.

Email me if there's any way I can help.
posted by pinespree at 11:46 PM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


As many others have said: Please, call up a suicide hotline. Talk to someone. Please. Get the help you need.

Now I will depart a bit from the others, because I think that while depression is a disease, that does not necessarily mean that does not lead us to philosophical questions.

After you're back and things have stabilized a bit, remember the existentialists like Sartre and Camus. Not exactly cheerful people; for them "To be or not to be" was the ONLY question. But even in their darkest moments, they ultimately asserted that the essence of being human was persevering in the face of pain. The acceptance of suffering is in itself a liberating act; you conquer your pain by accepting it as part of you, and that brings with it a transcendent form of freedom and happiness. You confront it, you revolt against it, even though it may come back today, or tomorrow, or 10 years from now. Remember that even Sisyphus can laugh at the gods as he endlessly pushes up that rock. That's what it means to be human, and you're not alone in that at all.

You have my best and sincerest wishes.
posted by papakwanz at 11:58 PM on March 3, 2007 [5 favorites]

i dunno, i was brought up in episcopalianism but it didn't take very well, to say the least.
awhile back, the episcopal church consecrated a gay bishop, as i recall, his name is gene robinson, in new hampshire. maybe he has some insights that could help you out.
posted by bruce at 12:10 AM on March 4, 2007

The Universe has no need of Purpose to be Beautiful - it simply Is.

Likewise, your Life need not have any Purpose to be Beautiful.

Life is mystery and beauty enough, all on its own.

Any additionally rewarding spiritual experiences or faiths above and beyond that are just extra icing on the cake. Enjoy them if you wish, but they aren't required to leave a strong, ethical, em>moral or beautiful life.

Yeah, finding beauty takes work. Life is often ugly. It's no rose garden. I've got a total sum of a dozen bucks in my pocket, a waning carreer, I haven't been able to find the handle for my shaving razor in two weeks after moving, and I'm starting to look like Grizzly Adams with a hangover. I've got no job, no beer, no razor and I'm sort of technically living in the van down by the river.

But life will go on. Even if I have to eat fucking grass and bugs and drag myself through the streets on broken bloodied stumps of legs to get it, life will go on.

And that's the beauty of life.

I seriously hope you hang in there. The world needs more deep philosophers who truly Understand. The fact you're facing this crisis is indicative that you do understand.

Don't waste that. We need it.

My contacts are in my profile, but please, get help from a professional.
posted by loquacious at 12:28 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

Dunno if you are considering books by Buddhists "religious texts", but as an existentialist, I've gotten good things from this book/author:

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times; Pema Chödrön.

Best wishes with your search.
posted by obloquy at 12:34 AM on March 4, 2007

My heart goes out to you. I went through a similar spiritual crisis myself a few years ago, and though by the sound of things it was rather less severe than what you're going through, I think I have at least an inkling of what you're feeling and how horrible it is. I can't say that I've totally resolved it, but I'm certainly much better off now than I was then.

I think that what helps and what hurts in one of these is incredibly individual and personal, and because of that I feel like I'm walking on eggshells in replying- I can say that a few of the answers here would have made me feel worse, though I can easily see how they would cheer other people. Conversely, I doubt that the specific things that best pulled me out of it in the end would work for most people, and some might find them actively depressing.

So, rather than offer anything specific, in the short run I'll second everyone who has recommended that you call someone ASAP. In the long run, I will just say that Christianity and atheist existential nihilism are not the only two choices you have, and that the loss of Christian faith does not force you to accept the latter. The variety of religious and non-religious ways in which humans have found or created meaning is incredible- indeed, the search for meaning is meaning itself for some. You mentioned that you studied religion and philosophy before- you may find it worthwhile to revisit those subjects with new eyes eventually. If you were planning to be an Episcopal priest, I'm assuming your studies had a Christian focus, and a deeper exploration of non-Christian belief systems, religious or otherwise, might turn up something helpful or meaningful to you.

I hope that was at least somewhat helpful. In any case, I wish the very best for you, and I hope we hear back from you soon.
posted by a louis wain cat at 1:39 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

"Dear incomprehension, it’s thanks to you I’ll be myself, in the end." --Beckett, The Unnameable.

Do talk to someone.
posted by holgate at 2:03 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

I, too, am a religious studies major (although I am agnostic, and was so before choosing my academic focus). I was fortunate to take a course last year entitled Death and Dying, shortly before spending an entire month at my grandmother's side while she nearly died from colon cancer. She is one of the most important figures in my life, and her brush with death nearly destroyed me. Thankfully, my Death class had equipped me with the mental and emotional tools to work through the grieving process. It’s strange how grief can seem to take on a life of its own.

This said, I found Tuesdays with Morrie profoundly moving and life-affirming. I generally shy away from "Best Sellers," but we were assigned this book for class, and I do not regret it. It is the real-life story of the last years of Morrie Schwartz, a sufferer of ALS, and his advice for/insights into living a life with intense pain. Though your pain is of the emotional/spiritual kind, I think you'd be able to relate to his story. He approaches the entire ordeal very philosophically.

During my senior year of high school I endured a debilitating depression after the discovery of some familial issues. This depression was amplified by my study of Camus and, in some twist of absurd irony, by my study of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I must say that, as a secular humanist, I find existentialism very appealing on an intellectual level…but hell if my study of it while depressed didn’t nearly kill me. However, like papakwanz has written above, the existentialists “ultimately asserted that the essence of being human was persevering in the face of pain.” If you draw anything from them, try to focus on this. You can get through this.

At several junctures in my life I have experienced despair so consuming that I thought it easier to just end my life than to try to scale the walls of the hole into which I had fallen. However, to reiterate manjusri’s comment, ending your life does not end the despair. You merely pass the buck to your loved ones and those around you. Taking my own life would have irreversibly affected my loved ones. It was this idea that prevented me from doing anything to hurt myself. I found someone to talk to, and with their help I was able to get through it. You don’t have to suffer through this alone. Find a counselor or therapist as soon as you can.

Now, when I’m feeling particularly down, I pick up one of two collections of short stories by Lorrie Moore: Self-Help or Like Life. Her writing is clever and insightful, and I generally take away from my reading of her stories the oft-overlooked beauty that exists in the mudane around us.

Lastly, don't neglect the fact that you're also dealing with issues of heartbreak. The advice in these threads (1, 2, 3) may be of some help to you.

You have my sympathy during this difficult period . Hang in there.
posted by numinous at 2:18 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

The world needs people like you -- people capable of existential angst, of crises of faith (or lack thereof). And I'm not speaking from a religious point of view. If the world is ever going to become a more humane place, it needs more people like you. To me, that's as plainly obvious as the fact that I'm typing on keyboard right now.

But that doesn't mean it always has to or will hurt this badly. You've been through some intense and horrible shit lately and you are, understandably, still grieving. It's not going to be like this for the rest of your life.

Fwiw, I had deep religious aspirations until I came out of the closet, at which point I became intensely attracted to philosophy, especially the existentialists.

I second all the recommendations to read the existentialists more closely. As far as I know, none of the major existentialist thinkers committed suicide -- and surely this isn't because they didn't grasp the implications of what they were articulating!

As far as books that have helped . . . well, one book that helped me tremendously was Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. It's hard to say why. I think it made me laugh at a time when I thought nothing could make me laugh. I realized that Vonnegut "got it" in the way that I "got it" but somehow he still managed to laugh and make me laugh.
posted by treepour at 3:30 AM on March 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

The closest thing I can think of (in answer to the book request) is Unweaving the Rainbow, which I remember being quite good.
posted by Martin E. at 3:58 AM on March 4, 2007

Quoted from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion
"In my interview with [Jim] Watson at Clare, I conscientiously put it to him that, unlike him and [Francis] Crick, some people see no conflict between science and religion, because they claim science is about how things work and religion is about what it is all for. Watson retorted: 'Well, I don't think we're for anything. We're just products of evolution. You can say, "Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don't think there's a purpose." But I'm anticipating having a good lunch.' We did have a good lunch, too."
There's a video here where Dawkins speaks with great eloquence about life. It starts around 2:45.
posted by krisjohn at 4:59 AM on March 4, 2007

First, do make the call lthat others here suggest.
2nd: there is true depression (see the book by William Styron; read up on Abe Lincoln) and then there is the "depression": that is a rough time that we undergo because of this or that circumstance. Real Depression is clinical, hormonal, genetic and mankind has always had a percentage of people with this, not to be confused with bi-polar, which at least has its highs.
3. Humans have always asked of Life 3 questions: where did we come from; why are we here; where are we going after we die. Religion offers answers that for many of us are not satisfactory because too cuddly and make-believe. Evolution suggests, by contrast, that We are here by Chance; we have no real purpose but to propogate and continue the species; we die and our genes live on for a time through others.

Existentialism fits nicely into that evolutionary paradigm. Camus, in his book Sysyphus, asks in his opening pages, Why should we not commit suicide, and then proceeds to answers this. A book that many have loved: Victor Frankle's Man's Search For Meaning
existential thought does seem (to me) to be very much at home with current Darwinian evolutionaryh thinking. But first make that call and get help to begin your journey of discovery
posted by Postroad at 5:27 AM on March 4, 2007

(Actually it's Frankl. And yes, you should read Man's Search for Meaning.)
posted by staggernation at 5:57 AM on March 4, 2007

The concept of meaning is a human concept that is derived from human life. Your concept of meaning is derived from your life. Therefore your life has meaning. There isn't anything else.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:58 AM on March 4, 2007

What a horrible loss to have to suffer through. My heart goes out to you. I hope you do get help to step away from any immediate steps to kill yourself; after that, I suggest you follow obloquy's recommendation to read Pema Chödrön. The one he mentions is particularly relevant, but I also really liked The Wisdom of No Escape.
posted by mediareport at 6:15 AM on March 4, 2007

My little brother died when he was 14; when I was 16. I lost faith in the people who were supposed to help him, and I lost faith in the religion that refused to offer comfort because he took his own life. It was a long, bleak struggle of dark times and black minutes after that- and really, the only reason I didn't follow was guilt. I couldn't do that to my mother again.

I struggled until I poured it all into my own book, then I struggled until I sold the book, and now it's not mine anymore. I can leave a marker on the pages, "This is for my brother. I still don't understand why," but I wrapped it all up and gave it away and now I can do other things, and grieve like a normal person.

That he's gone makes me sad because he's gone- not because he took God and hope and light with him. Without all those other deaths weighing him down, I can love him again, too, and feel joy when I see things, hear voices, find new songs, that remind me of him.

Talk to someone, read other people's books right now- get to the point where you'd feel too guilty to go, and go on just out of spite. Crawl across the glass of the nasty brutishness until you can find the thing to pour your hurt into. If you're lucky, it'll be something beautiful, but if it's not, it doesn't matter. Whatever the vessel, just struggle until you can make it, so you can get to the place where you grieve just for him and not all the ideals and hopes that died with him.

There's still love there, a quiet and contemplative one, a privately shared one, between the two of you. A new song, a perfect sunset, a strange new dish you try because you know he would have loved it- that love still lives- he's still there in those moment- but you can only have them you hang on long enough to see him again without hurt.

Please hang on.
posted by headspace at 6:32 AM on March 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

Like many others here, I feel for you and hope that you'll talk to someone.

I can't bear existence for fifty more years if this is all there is.

It's not all there is. And if you think about it, you know it's not, because it's not all there WAS. You haven't -- up until now -- felt unending pain. In fact, you were in love. And that love was sweet.

And you must know, via observing other people, that life isn't necessarily about loving someone and losing him, loving someone else and losing him, loving someone else and losing him... Sure, there's some chance in life (or some "God moves in mysterious ways", if that's how you want to think about it), but chance isn't the same as a curse. You're not doomed to be unhappy. If you stick with this life, eventually you'll find love again and that love will also be sweet. And there's no reason to think that it will be ripped away from you.

I fear that this won't reach you, because if I was in your position -- knowing that I'd found and lost my soulmate -- I wouldn't want to hear about future loves. Still, what I say is true.

I'm one of those people who is not "built" to live alone. I only feel complete if I have another person to share my life with. And I basically didn't until I was 30.

From about 18 to 29, I was deeply unhappy. My life didn't seem to have any meaning. I was also SURE that I would never find anyone. That I would live out the next fifty years in a hell on Earth, and it was often really hard to go on.

But somehow I did go on, I found someone, and we've been together for 13 years. And here's what I've learned: the good trumps the bad.

What do I mean by that? Well, imagined doing ten years of manual labor for a one-thousand-dollar payoff. A thousand dollars is nice to have, but it's not worth going through ten horrible years to get it. Even with the money in my hand, I'd be angry about the ten years. But I DON'T feel that way about love. And I don't know anyone who does -- once they're in love. No one thinks, "you know, it's great to be in love and be loved, but it really wasn't worth all those years of loneliness."

The most painful thought in the world to me is the idea of losing my partner. It's very hard for me to get close to people, and if I lost her, I probably wouldn't even go on a date for many many years. But I now know that even if it took me 20 years to fall in love again, it would be worth it. It really would. The man who finds love at 70 is a very lucky man. He's blessed.
posted by grumblebee at 7:00 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

Metafilter has had a number of good threads about despair, with some gems of illumination therein.
posted by poxuppit at 7:40 AM on March 4, 2007

Existential angst is a normal part of life. In a way, you have already won, in the sense that you are no longer afraid of death. Coming to terms with your own mortality is a very tough mission for most people, so to have a handle on that at 23 is excellent.

This is all there is. One day at a time. You have realized that you are the one in control, and can end it when you want to. But there's no need to rush. Do right by your future self, treat it to some fun and love and play. You'll be glad you did.

I after 5 or 10 years everything still sucks, you can revisit the issue.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:13 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Considering your background and plans to have become an Episcopal priest, please contact Integrity, the LGBT Episcopal organization. There is a chapter in Birmingham with phone numbers, their meeting place, and a list of "welcoming" Episcopal churches in Birmingham and throughout Alabama. I am certain that these folks can point you in the direction of counseling, both on the spiritual and psychological levels. And, I am certain that they can help you find a shoulder to cry on, if that's what you need, or a "good work" to do if that what's needed to redirect your mind from your sorrow.

I want to endorse what others say that the key to getting past this question is not in reading and thinking. It's in doing and being. It would be simplistic to say, "Don't worry, be happy." Nonetheless, it is possible to put your grief and despair on hold while you allow yourself to take on activities that will, eventually, let you live again.

I speak from experience. I was a young gay Catholic man 25 years ago. At the time of coming out, I had great depression, anomie, and alienation from the world around me. I found great solace at the time with Dignity, the LGBT Catholic organization, and I gained many Episcopalian friends through the local church where we met and later through an LGBT-Episcopal Internet group. Growing, and getting past the pain and doubt and fear was a long process -- but it was made easier by having the appropriate kind of support around me.

And here's my wishy-washy disclaimer: I'm suggesting this specifically because of your background. For another person, a non-Episcopalian, it might not be a great idea. For you, I think, it should lead you to someone who can help.

Best of luck. My email is in my profile -- feel free to write me if I can help.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:18 AM on March 4, 2007

Was in car accident at 20. Not pretty, two deaths, me badly injured, long time in the hospital. Completely miserable and really felt as though I wanted to die, the physical pain and depression over losing people close to me was so great.

A friend bought me some scifi book about alien rabbits coming to visit earth. It was funny. I laughed so hard I cried, which helped more than I say.

So, on top of all the other advice you got, try to find something humorous or lighter to read. Calvin and Hobbes perhaps or maybe Bloom County. You've been through a lot and small bits of joy might help reconnect you to life.

The pain does ease. You can find joy in life again. Breathe slowly and take it slowly.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:20 AM on March 4, 2007

I too was a philosophy and religion major at college with plans to go on to the seminary. We differ in that I never suffered such a sharp shock as you at that age. If anything I am fairly flat in emotional affect and don't feel loss very deeply. I have dealt with a low lying depression for a bit over 20 years, periodically the idea of suicide comes around and plays in my mind for a while. Never has it been as acute as how it sounds with you but it is ugly enough and since I don't really cycle through periods of exuberance I have gone looking for sustenance beyond "one day at a time". Here are my thoughts.

First, please do talk to someone. If you don't want to call the hotline, then go to a confession or a friend. Dialogue is powerful, and in some metaphorical sense it embodies whatever meaning there is in the world.

Here are some books I recommend. For me my interest in philosophy and religion is not related to who makes the most illuminating distinctions on 'mind' or anthropological interest in various forms of worship. I don't know who or what you have read but there are deep and meaningful written responses to the 'lack' of meaning in the world.

Simone Weil, _Gravity and Grace_
Epictetus, _Discourses_
Anonymous, _The Gospel of Thomas_

I have read a bit on Buddhism in recent years and a point that has given me some peace is distinguishing between suffering and pain. Pain is inescapable, suffering can be eliminated. Here suffering is defined as a disagreement with the way the world is in favor of how you think it should be. Acceptance of the world as it is will decrease your suffering.

But why do that? There is a quote, possibly from the Koran, where God declares why he made the world and man. "I was a hidden treasure and desired to be made known.". That is the best expression of 'why' I have come across.

With acceptance gratitude will come. Without a sense of gratitude it's all just words. There you embody your connection to 'something' larger. Meaning isn't a matter of dogma but participatory and not limited to when things are going your way.

So, in short, acceptance and gratitude. Perhaps the image of the bitter cup is an appropriate one to consider.

If any of this resonates with you, then at some point meditation or contemplative prayer may be a profitable avenue to explore.

I am sorry to hear of your loss.
posted by BigSky at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

You don't need to choose between "it's a disease, get help" and "it's a spiritual crisis, seek renewal".

You have a body and a mind. Your depression involves both. Grief and loss of faith triggered it, but now it's taken on a life of its own in your body. Medication, exercise and loving human contact can help the body; talk and productive thought and exploration can help the mind. Most important is what you're seeking right now: engagement with the outside world.

You say all the writings of the existentialists seem true to you; perhaps they're saying something different than what you believe. The existentialists I've read, Camus and Kierkegaard, were tremendously inspirational and offered me the possibility (whether or not I've achieved it) of limitless courage. The apparent lack of inherent meaning in the universe is a fact, but the human activity that creates meaning is everywhere and is indestructible wherever we exist.
posted by lbergstr at 8:52 AM on March 4, 2007

if you believe life is empty and meaningless, and this disturbs you, you're *really* going to be disturbed by death. think about it.
posted by quonsar at 9:34 AM on March 4, 2007 [5 favorites]

three years ago i was there. i could not see anything positive anywhere. i was filled with despair and numbness. when i was convinced beyond a doubt that it could not get any worse, it did. and then, it got better. today everything is different and i could not have imagined this life back then. i don't know why, and i don't care, the point is: sometimes we go into deep tunnels. if we just keep slogging we come out the other side. it's unimaginably better on the other side friend, so keep slogging.
posted by quonsar at 9:42 AM on March 4, 2007 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have a published book for you, but I do have three notebooks full of writings I produced while in a similar place in my life.

Ah, here it is:
Why live?

Because when I'm feeling okay, life is very enjoyable.
Since I accepted that thought, my life has been a series of small moves towards greener pastures.
posted by tkolar at 9:45 AM on March 4, 2007 [7 favorites]

That being said, my hope is that someone can point me to a book that will offer some sense of meaning in a meaningless world.

Oh yeah, the lack of externally enforced meaning leaves you free to attach meaning to anything you want. It can be a bit daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it it can be a lot of fun.

Welcome to the existentialist phase of your life.
posted by tkolar at 9:49 AM on March 4, 2007

apologies for this being so long, but I felt it needed to be said

It would be easier for me to ask you to talk to someone, and I would like you to, very much so - but I don't know if you would. So I'll say a bit more, and hope you find some of it helpful.

I'm around the same age as you - I'm 24. I've teetered on the edge for many years of my life, and tried a few times to go over. These days 99.9% of the time I'm no longer in that place, but I'm not quite out of the woods yet. But better, definitely. So hopeful I can offer something.

I'm truly sorry for your loss. It is terrible to have someone you love so much taken away from you. Your question seems to be posed in philosophical terms, and many people have given you answers along the lines of existential philosophy. But I don't think it's about philosophy is it? You have a broken heart. If your heart weren't broken, you may wonder about the meaning of life, but it probably wouldn't matter to you that much.

Wanna hear a funny story? There was this one time, right? I took an overdose of antidepressants, trying to take my own life. I was about 16, deep in depression, and had stopped going to school. There were important exams coming up, and my form teacher actually came to my home to try to help me get back to school. Which was kind of him. I knew he was coming in the afternoon, didn't want to face him, and that morning took the overdose. Nothing much happened though, as I lay back waiting for death. So in the end, afternoon came, the door bell rang, I answered the door, let my teacher in, and got on with my day. Only, without realising it, the overdose of antidepressants was getting me high. In the midst of talking about my studies with my teacher in our dining room, I started telling him about some of my troubles, things you would never tell your teacher, especially one who I was never close to and who was quite strict in school. And the funniest thing was, I kept asking him what the meaning of life was. Can you imagine? I had no idea I was high. I just needed to know.

And he listened to me talk, with incredible patience, or what certainly seemed to me at the time like incredible patience. (did I mention I was high?) And looked at me with incredibly kind eyes, and he said, Why does life have to have meaning? I think that was his response - maybe that was his philosophy at that point. But anyway, I of course wasn't satisfied with that, and kept talking faster and faster, as I got more and more high (higher and higher?), until eventually he had to make an excuse to leave, bless him.

I tell this very personal story because... okay, let's see. Firstly, I think I know what the meaning of life is now. And I always wanted to tell my teacher that. Secondly because later that day, after the high, I started getting the shakes, never told anyone until days later, and was incredibly lucky that (as far as we know) no permanent damage was done. See, I don't know if you've tried, but ending your life deliberately is hard. And I know (knew?) a couple of people who have done so, but also know many stories about people who just permanently damage their bodies in their attempts - organ failure, brain damage, getting paralysed. And they still have to live, only now also with the physical damage. Even if you place the barrel of a shotgun in your mouth and press the trigger, you can miss, and blow half your face out without ending your life. It's true.

So anyway, after what happened in that story, I continued to struggle for years and years with depression. For many years, I kept asking people for the meaning of life. I had debates with people about whether life is futile - and of course I always won, because I'm pretty damn good at arguing, if I may say so myself - but mostly because it's near impossible with argue with depressive logic. And also because most people haven't found their answers yet, and they're still looking for it. And because it's an incredibly personal thing, probably different for everybody. That's why you'll probably never find your answer in a book. Never mind ONE book.

I mean if there were one book containing the meaning of life, don't you think we would've heard of it by now?

You're looking for a convincing argument as to why it is better to live than to die. Like I said, it's incredibly hard to argue with what is likely to be your mental state right now. But I can give it a go by responding to what you've said here.

I say the following in no way to make light of your suffering. Really. But you're by no means alone in losing someone you love so much. I'm sure at other times you've looked around you, seen or heard about others who have lost loved ones. How most of them recover from that loss, eventually. There is no reason why you cannot. I hope you can take some heart in that.

Whatever terrible, terrible things have happened to you up to this point - unless you're stuck in an abusive environment (and even then there are almost always ways out) - there is no logical reason why your life will continue to be so terrible. That's how our brain process things - if our life was full of suffering in past, it seems obvious that this will also be true in the future. BUT THAT'S WRONG, and with a clear mind you will be able to see that.

And I said "full of suffering", but I'm sure your life wasn't "full" of suffering. You met your soulmate, for a start! I haven't met my soulmate. I haven't experienced the kind of love that you have. I know many people much older than me, who haven't, and wish to experience that kind of love.

Wasn't it wondrous? It must've been wondrous, right? Amazing, beautiful, made you absolutely ecstatic to be alive. I mean, if it weren't so good, you wouldn't feel the loss you feel now. So you already know one way life can be beautiful.

But it's no good if it just gets ripped away from you, your depressive mind may be thinking. NO. This is a one-off misfortune, a terrible, terrible thing, but a one-off thing - it doesn't happen over and over again.

And normally it would be very much not right to say this, while you are still grieving - but since you need the hope and a glimpse of the long-term perspective so much right now, it needs to be said - if you let yourself, you will love again. The one and only soulmate thing is a lie - there are 6.6 billion people in the world right now apparently, and we can all hope that there is more than one person who fits us perfectly. That doesn't by any means diminish how special what you had with your fiancé is - but losing your fiancé is not the end of the road.

You say all your faith in God has been obliterated, I take it because your fiancé was taken from you. How can there be a God so cruel to allow it? But maybe God isn't interventionist. I know religion asks you to believe that if you pray, God can intervene, that if things go well, you thank God, and if they don't, well you thank God for the challenge. That never made sense to me. Maybe God cannot intervene, because that is what life is. I'm an agnostic - I don't know if there is a God. But I say this because you say the foundations on which much of your life had been built up to this point has been obliterated. And I'm trying to say it doesn't have to be that way, that suffering, however harsh and terrible, doesn't negate the existence of God.

Back to how I found meaning. Like I said, I asked people to win the argument, but nobody could. So I looked to books. Self-help books yes (the good ones do have things you can take away with you), but also stories in general. Short stories especially. I've just been rereading Raymond Carver's short story A Small, Good Thing, which is probably my favourite short story, and partly about people who've suffered great loss. I also looked to films, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful). And all kinds of art. I think I read somewhere about the traditional story-arc, the one most stories follow. Someone is okay. An obstacle comes along, they suffer. They work through it. The reason why that is so appealing is because that's pretty much the human experience, encapsulated.

But I love short stories too, like the ones by Raymond Carver, where there are often no plots as such, no happy endings, or indeed endings of any sort. Where it's just about moments. And it's in those moments, the little things, that we find joy and beauty in life. Like that xkcd webcomic Manjusri linked to. I love xkcd, and it's one of the little things that make life worthwhile for me. Even if you don't see the joy in that webcomic right now, I'd like to think you will one day.

I said I found the meaning of life, didn't I? But it's personal, it's for me, so ymmv - my meaning of life is to enjoy myself as much as I can. Both with little things like the squirrels, or nature, or small kindnesses (like all the people making the effort to respond in this thread) - and the kind of love that you shared with your fiancee, however brief that may be. I also really like to create things that I think will cheer both myself and others on in our struggles in life. Like music. And storytelling. And that xkcd webcomic. Little things. And help make other people's lives easier, if I can. That's it. That feels enough for me right now. I hope that may be enough for you too.

You said your dosage of antidepressant had been increased - sometimes antidepressants like prozac can have side-effects that actually make you feel suicidal. Don't ever go off antidepressants cold turkey, but do talk to whoever's prescribing them to you, to see if you need to change. And do talk to someone, whether it's a counsellor, someone on an anonymous phoneline, or your other loved ones. People have mentioned the effects of suicide on loved ones, and I haven't mentioned it until now, because guilt is no answer - but if you need one more thing to strengthen your resolve to live, think of the devastation the passing away of your fiancé has wreaked on your life and your mental state. Now imagine if he had taken his own life, leaving you always with the guilt that maybe you could've said this or done that to save him, and why weren't you enough? That's what you would be passing on to the ones you love, if you give up now. You sound like a good guy, and the world needs more good guys. Hang around. Beyond the books and the films and the small kindnesses, one of the most important things that helped me heal is time, to recover from the spiritual damage I had taken. It took a long time. But it's worth it.
posted by Ira.metafilter at 9:49 AM on March 4, 2007 [7 favorites]

Hey Jeff, Jamie here. Yeah, you don't me from Adam, but here's what I've got.

I grew up in Hanceville, AL. That's about an hour north of you in Cullman county (ever see that exit on 65 north that says "Arkadelphia / Hanceville" - that's about where it is). Not Episcopal, though, Southern Baptist. I had a fairly deep and devout series of beliefs as a kid and teenager that revolved around God and God's grand plans or the universe.

Unlike you, I wasn't planning on being a priest or anything, just a band director. After high school I tried college to pursue this goal, but let me tell you, growing up in Hanceville, AL in the 70s and 80s didn't exactly give me any decent ground for education of any sort. So, I ended up going to work instead. As a theater manager. Largely because as I got older I found movies were giving me a lot more meaning in life than school or church.

I worked for about five years as a theater manager in Nashville, TN. It was great. From 19-22 was that "time of your life" experience that a lot of people go on about. What Nashville and the theater job gave me, though, in retrospect, was a group of friends that were open minded and very educated and very interested in the world and how it works and changes. And coming from Hanceville this was both a bit of a challenge to me but also a great opening up of my own mind. And I loved it. I loved them. But something was slowly happening that I really didn't see until it was too late. For me, the theater job was pretty much my only end point perspective and I didn't see much beyond that. Everyone I worked with, though, the theater job was entirely something that was fleetingly temporary. And over time, all of those friends, and all of the acceptance and meaning that I got out of life from those people being around me dwindled as they all went off to graduate school, professional school, better post-college jobs in other places. Essentially, everything that was giving my life any meaning was slowly eroding and disappearing and I wasn't aware of it. All I was aware of was the feeling of emptiness and this creeping, horrible specter of a feeling that I couldn't put my finger on then. It was depression.

Between 22 and 24, all of the great friends and time from when I was 19-22 were gone. I was the last one left in the dead-end job and I was left with a newfound intellectual curiosity about life and not a single person around me that was interested in that. The depression got deeper.

Ultimately, I quit that job. And I spent the next year completely in the pondering state of wondering what the hell the point of anything was. Anything at all. I was depressed and suicidal for a long time. Looking back on it, it was certainly the least happy time of my life that followed the most happy time of my life (up until then, mind you).

I can't pinpoint exactly what changed me, frankly, but I do know it was reading. A lot. Not just rich books about meaning in life. The most important thing I read at the time was Calvin and Hobbes. Why? Because C&H was often about exactly the questions I had about meaning in life, just like your questions. In four panels on a daily basis Watterson worked out all of these questions for himself. I followed along. The most important thing it did though, was laugh at the absurdity of it all. Over and over. It was sometimes touching, yes, but overall there was an important long term lesson from reading those that I only now really understand, which is that life is what it is and we can either laugh or cry at what life has to offer us. Sometimes we must cry, there is no doubt. But we can't do that all the time. The absurdity of life is simply too mind bogglingly bizarre NOT to laugh at it.

After you've gotten off the phone with the counselor, which I hope you did, my main suggestion is to find something to laugh at. Sometimes it will hurt to do, especially when it reminds you of the person you've lost. But you have to laugh. At yourself. At the world. At how utterly crazy it all is. Otherwise, indeed, you'll wonder why until you are simply wandering around in circles.

I'm 41 now. I still have a lot of questions. I am still frustrated by the absurdities in life, but at the same time, they do amuse me to no end. I am an atheist now. If I had to state what I believe, I would say nothing. If anything, I would describe myself as a optimistic existentialist. For me, the only meaning life has is the one that I give it. And I had better give it a very, very good one since it's the only one I have.
posted by smallerdemon at 10:11 AM on March 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

For me, the only meaning life has is the one that I give it.

smallerdemon hits it on the nose.

Sartre: "Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose."

Reread The Myth of Sisyphus, to begin with, and keep all this in mind. Absurdity is your answer.

(Look also to Nietzsche's idea of 'eternal recurrence'. It's brought me quite a bit of - if not meaning - some kind of framework.)
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 10:28 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

herman hesse's "siddartha" might be good for you.

but more importantly, PLEASE seek counseling. not to talk about your feelings or any of that mushy stuff--you need to learn some concrete strategies for coping, and a therapist is good for that. your life really can and will get better if you get the necessary help. you will find love. you will find spiritual satisfaction. you will find your path in this world. this is a hard time for you, but it really will make you a stronger, better person, if you can endure it and if you have the sense to seek the help you need to get through it.

this is like an abscessed tooth: even if it doesn't kill you, there is no reason not to seek professional help to deal with it.

life is complicated and imperfect, and life after college is especially disillusioning. please know that things will get better, and you will be okay. things seem very black and white when you are young; as you get older, you learn how to cope with the shades of gray that confront you. this was hard for me to learn, maybe harder than the challenges themselves. you'll find your way.

why don't you apply to the peace corps or find some other volunteer opportunities? i'm not religious myself, but i think that ministry can take all kinds of shapes, both formal and informal, and feeding the hungry or teaching the illiterate is as legitimate a way to serve both god and man as a formal ministry is.

and get help. you sound like a person worth knowing and loving, and who could do some good in this dark, confusing world. please stay alive. you never know whose life you will touch.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:39 AM on March 4, 2007

I've been thinking about you since I read your post this morning.

And I've concluded that you're lucky. That may not make sense, given the emotional suffering that you are going through. But you've experienced firsthand that life is not, in fact, nothing but nasty brutishness. At a young age you've experienced the trancendent love for another person that persists long after he is gone. For the rest of your life, you'll feel the pain of missing him, and probably the anger that you lost him so soon. But you'll also be able to remember the wonder you found in loving him. That's real life proof that life is more than eating and shitting and sleeping, right there.

You may never love someone the way you loved your fiance. But you'll find love with others in different ways, and you'll be able to love the human spark within them. You don't need to believe in God or destiny or the afterlife, or any of that stuff. Believe in the beauty of your friends and lovers and family, and the reality and truth of what you found with your fiance.

Speaking to your question about books, I am an eternal cynic myself. My favorite book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's a tough read, but I think it helped me get through some very similar times in my life (I am someone who has struggled wiht depression as well) in a non-uplifting way. I've also found listenting to music very helpful, especially (contradictorally) dark music like Tom Waits.

I wish you the best. You're not alone.
posted by miss tea at 11:22 AM on March 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm recommending Pema Chodron as well. The books are great but you really need to hear her speak - it's well worth it to download GETTING UNSTUCK. Best of luck to you. It's on ITunes as well.
posted by philad at 2:22 PM on March 4, 2007

Grief is a long hard road. My sister died in car accident when I was 5. She was drunk. To this day, her death still affects me. I've gone from acceptance to anger to resentment and back again. These stages happened years apart. I've wondered a thousand times over how my life would have been different if she had remained alive. I'm now 20. I've certainly learned a lot from all of it. Death isn't something you ever "get over." You'll always love that person and you'll never forget them, but it's okay for life to go on.

It's almost a daily occurrence for me to question the meaning of life. The answer always seems to be the same. I always come to the conclusion that life, in and of itself, is indeed meaningless yet life has meaning if we choose it to have meaning. Thus the meaning of life is different for everyone. That is a very beautiful thing.

I have faith that you will find your way through the darkness.
posted by VegaValmont at 2:23 PM on March 4, 2007

To me asking "what is the meaning of all this" is not a philosophical question but is the symptom of depression.
So the answer is: take care of your depression.

Seemingly acceptable theory, but this means almost everyone with an ounce of intelligence, not to mention the entire scientific community, has symptoms of depression. Has anyone over the age of 18 not asked this question in a nihilistic way at least once in their life?

My answer, now that enough people have given the anti suicide advice, is that once you've been through some hideous things.. you start to realize that life is yours for the taking, playing, and for screwing around with and enjoying. If the thought of killing yourself has ever passed through your mind, and you get over that depression, the world is your oyster, because no matter what happens, you won't ever be in a worse place than where you've already been.

I read somewhere the other day (from a Reddit link, I think) about an American who was captured and tortured in WW2 and he got himself through several years of abuse by thinking about how he could use this as an experience to be wiser in future, and how it'd make a great life story. Keep writing the life story for yourself and everyone to enjoy, rather than end it mid-chapter.
posted by wackybrit at 4:39 PM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I keep not responding to this because I am afraid I won't be able to be properly respectful of some of the opinions in this thread.

Depression is not an existential dilemma. It is not a side effect of atheism. It is a disease. You have it bad. You need help.

To me asking "what is the meaning of all this" is not a philosophical question but is the symptom of depression.
So the answer is: take care of your depression.

The love of your life dies a tragic death a few months from your wedding date and you think it is sick to still be broken after 4 months? who are you people?

To the OP, in my opinion what you are feeling is completely normal and healthy and expected, and you will get through it. it hurts and it will keep hurting and in a way it will hurt that it stops hurting when that eventually happens. You have suffered something tragic, like many, many human beings before you. You have also gone through one of the most beautiful experiences available to human beings, falling in love. Life is a strange, wonderful, painful experience, that is fundamentally more than we could have asked for.

I don't find the existentialist outlook depressing, because all it removes from the equation is an authority who sets the rules. They say, there is no one in charge: but Something Happened anyway. There is a world, there are living people, there are intense and incredible and complex experiences available to us, somehow. Why would it be better if there were someone in charge? The universe is equally amazing one way or the other, and the Authority could not reconcile everyone's hopes, since we all have different interpretations and understandings, so almost everyone would be disappointed by some aspect or other of god if he were to exist in any kind of distinctive way.

I dunno, there are countless different avenues of philosophy, poetry, art, music, literature & film that I would recommend, but it is all kind of a personal preference. Looking at the bookshelf next to me, I wonder if you ever read Nietzsche's The Gay Science or Emerson's essay "Experience"... Or you could try some Dylan Thomas, or Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - but see, I am just listing off a few things that sort of jump out when really, I just find reading good stuff therapeutic in a generic way. If you want something that is going to convince you back to some kind of religious belief, I would try emerson, perhaps CS Lewis or even Augustine's Confessions if you want more directly christian. But then, you majored in religion & philosophy, so most of this is probably old news to you.

All I can really say is, it's not a disease to have black thoughts when life is harsh, but life is never static, and if you can hold on, as a gift for those who love you, as a gift to the fiance you lost, spring will come. We all go through winter now and then, though some of us live further north than others.
posted by mdn at 5:42 PM on March 4, 2007 [9 favorites]

Please get help. I did, and life is beautiful.

Step Back from the Exit

How I Stayed Alive when my Brain was Trying to Kill Me
posted by IndigoRain at 6:06 PM on March 4, 2007

posted by IndigoRain at 6:08 PM on March 4, 2007

my hope is that someone can point me to a book that will offer some sense of meaning in a meaningless world.

I don't mean some feel-good novel about the triumph of the human spirit, and I certainly don't mean a religious text.

I thought I might, y'know, answer the actual question.

A world without meaning is only an issue if you presuppose that the world ought to have meaning. Therefore, if you are interested in books that celebrate meaninglessness, then you cannot go further than the absurdists - Beckett & Ionesco especially, maybe Jarry to a far lesser extent. Pirandello's a pretty good read, too.

Existentialist "literature" isn't terribly bad, but so fucking dour, and lacking in the humour & light touch of the absurdists, who were basically coming from more or less the same position, anyway.

Going back a little in time, I cannot recommend Lautreamont's *Maldoror* highly enough - more or less got the ball rolling for the whole surrealist - absurdist vein of modern literature.

No idea if this follows any accepted interpretation of the disevolution of literature in the previous century, but I always felt that the OULIPO school of writing picked up from the absurdists, embiggening literature into a series of ultimately pointless exercises, which are beautiful simply because they are so essentially useless, and yet loaded with all the detail of life. Georges Perec would be the unmissable genius of this movement, although Harry Mathews is a big favourite, as well.

A great resource for following any of these wonderfully rich threads of happy nihilism is the endlessly invaluable ubuweb.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:51 PM on March 4, 2007

I'm a little late to this question, but I think I can help answer it, and it's important. Please forgive me if it's overly personal.

I lost two of my biggest reasons for living years ago, a couple weeks apart. My daughter died in her sleep before her first birthday, and her mother, my wife, took enough sleeping pills to join her two weeks later. It's complicated, but I never gave myself a chance to talk to anyone about it until recently.

I used to wake up early before going to work and sit thinking about killing myself, and work up a catalog of reasons not to. At first, every reason centered around other people: my parents would know exactly how losing a child felt and, knowing how it feels myself, I could never be the cause of that much pain to them; my brother would grow old missing me; my friends would never understand; my students and the teachers at the school I worked at would be devastated, my classes disrupted, school activities canceled, who knew?

So I would force myself to eat breakfast and shower and dress and go teach school for eight hours, among people who never knew I was married in the first place (it was a fast-moving surprise and I was not in a situation to tell anyone), and I would come home and sit among our things and read until I was tired, and then sleep.

I made it a point to read long books, ones with immersive plots like Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, or Tolstoy's War and Peace, from which you can learn just about everything about just about anything, or Gaddis' JR, which is as incomprehensible as it is rewarding and lends itself well to rereading, or Sheehy's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and Vietnam, which tells us something about duty and dissent, about bearing up, and about limits and how to behave when they are reached. These books are not necessarily "answer" books, but they served me as shelters with enough reality and humanity in them to serve as a proxy when there wasn't really any reality or humanity in me.

I read plenty of shorter books touching more expressly helpful themes and ideas, too. I reopened Thich Nhat Hanh's short and eloquent The Miracle of Mindfulness, a book I'd first encountered in college where reading it's first two chapters taught me to breathe. It taught me to breathe again, and eventually taught me to walk, to cry, and to remember in peace. Without that book I would be dead today.

Another book that I read while I was suicidal was Clear and Simple as the Truth, a guide to style in writing by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. I can't quite describe how this affected me, but it was as if, in my grief, I had lost my will to think or to examine things around me (probably why books were such a solace). This book describes a stance in writing and thought based on reason and an approach to truth, and is so lively and well-written and persuasive that it managed to convince me that if truth was worth seeking in writing, it was worth seeking in life.

Eventually, though more people came to depend on me over time, my reasons for not killing myself each morning had less to do with other people and more to do with myself, because there was finally something in me again worth living for. I think what I read during those years was a large part of it, and also the passage of time, and also that I forced myself out into the world, to go do my job, to go be around children and my colleagues and friends, around people who knew my wife and who knew nothing about me. It was an ice bath when I rode the train home from teaching middle school and I would hear a baby cry, and my eyes would fill with tears of regret and loss, but my mouth would smile, because she's a baby, and she's crying, and that's a sign of life.

I think grief works differently for everybody. I have trouble addressing my wife's suicide, but part of me thinks she was braver than me in the moment; none of me thinks she was crazy. I think you'd have to be crazy not to feel that way under certain circumstances, and I wish a lot of things and blame myself and I always will, because I loved her and my daughter and they're both gone.

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a curio shop, and he told me he wakes up every morning and repeats, out loud, "Truth is beautiful." He does it in Hindi, but then he's from India. He says he does it until the sleep is out of him and he is smiling. Because, he said, you can't help but smile when you say "Truth is beautiful" out loud. I tried it, and he's right.

It took a couple years for me to stop thinking about suicide every morning. Eventually it was replaced with more mundane stuff about what each day might bring and what I might do with it. I went from starting each day with tears and a hollow gut to starting each day with equanimity.

Now I wake up each morning and say, "Truth is beautiful," until I smile. Yes, I was much happier when I could see two smiles each morning, one little and one big, but I can't. I have to be satisfied with my own.

That's the way life is. It's the saddest thing in the world, but to tell you the truth, it's beautiful.
posted by breezeway at 8:51 PM on March 4, 2007 [96 favorites]

To me asking "what is the meaning of all this" is not a philosophical question but is the symptom of depression.

I meant of course "asking" here in the sense of a "maddening despair", "I really want to kill myself", "I can disprove any meaning that anyone suggests" way.
If that's the case it's very important to realize that you'll have to 'unask' the question, you'll have to transcend it and go back to your own emotions and what causes them. That can be obvious to some people, but no so obvious to the more abstractly philosophical inclined, as theologians can be inclined to be.
If it is the common way of "asking"; intriguedly reading philosophers, having fun reasoning about it, then you're in the domain of common philosophy and it's not a symptom of depression of course.
posted by jouke at 9:07 PM on March 4, 2007

my hope is that someone can point me to a book that will offer some sense of meaning in a meaningless world.

I can't point you toward a book. But I can point you to another human being suffering the same emotions. Me. Your neighbor. Your cashier. Your tax accountant. Every human. It's tough. I feel the meaninglessness every day. Every single one of us can understand and you can understand every single one of us. We're in it here, together.
posted by bobobox at 9:38 PM on March 4, 2007

Oh, holy crap. In the emotional response I had to the thread I had overlooked that you were actually asking for books. I'd read you weren't asking for a book.

Without any question you need to read Ismael, The Story of B and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It pulled me out of a 4-5 year funk that basically started with reading Philip K Dick's VALIS trilogy. It should address or at least approach the philosophical questions you're posing in your question.
posted by loquacious at 12:40 AM on March 5, 2007

Meh. Meaning is overrated.

It's one of those things that lots of people claim to be either looking for, or to have found in some activity or belief set, but really, it's totally not necessary.

Life can be random and wild and completely and utterly meaningless and still be beautiful and worthwhile and enjoyable for its own absurd and inscrutable sake.

Sure, the flash of insight that leads to understanding is a thing of considerable pleasure. But it's not the only considerable pleasure. Not by a long shot.

The belief that life must have a meaning in order to be worth living is just another one of those things you've been taught that turns out not to be true. Let it go.

You're 23: on the tail end of adolescence. Maybe you do truly believe that at 23 you've worked it all out and there's nothing more to learn. At 45, I'm tipping you're wrong.

There are going to be loads of things you feel certain about right now, that turn out to be flat wrong. This is not awful or intolerable; it's just what growing up feels like.

The belief that you can't bear another fifty years if "this is all there is" is a case in point. Not only can you bear it, you can enjoy it and embrace it and love it.

Another incorrect belief is that life is necessarily nasty, brutish and short. Let's take that one apart before it causes you any more trouble.

Whose life is necessarily nasty, brutish or short? Compared to what? Sitting at the right hand of God for all eternity, perhaps?

Comparing your own human existence to some Just So story of eternal paradise and deciding it's "nasty, brutish and short" by comparison is just retarded. Sorry, but it is. It's like comparing your car to the Millennium Falcon and deciding it's a piece of shit because it can't make the jump to lightspeed, only dumber. You're smarter than that. You've seen through the God delusion. So having discarded the bullshit, why cling to its logical consequences?

Give yourself the time to find out what else you've been wrong about. Spend the next ten years actively examining and discarding beliefs that aren't verifiable truths and aren't helping you have a rich and fulfilling existence. You can have that, even without Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy. Not only that, but you deserve to have that.

If you pack it all in now, you're depriving yourself of the chance to grow into somebody who is truly comfortable in his own skin and ready to take on whatever life throws at him with gusto and fortitude.

Give up the obsessive pursuit of meaning. Pursue enrichment. Strive to become inter-dependently wealthy.

And if you're feeling suicidal since upping your dose of antidepressants, it's definitely time to talk to your doctor about finding a different antidepressant. Don't let a poor choice of medication be your undoing.

If you want to talk stuff over with somebody else who has been close to the edge and chosen not to step over, my email is in my profile.
posted by flabdablet at 3:54 AM on March 5, 2007 [4 favorites]

Please don't cringe at the was written by a Rabbi who suffered a meaningless tragedy in his own family (a child born with progeria, a particularly cruel genetic disorder), and who went on to minister to others who had also felt particularly betrayed by life, and their former belief of what God was, including what they thought God was supposed to be doing for them/etc.. If you hate it or it's not appropriate, it's at least short:

"When Bad Things Happen to Good People" - Harold S. Kushner


"Man's Search for Meaning" - Victor Frankl

What kept Frankl alive in the camps when others gave up and died of hopelessness was the belief that his suffering might have meaning to others at some point (he would actually picture himself lecturing at a university about what he had learned about human nature from his experiences); and his ability to visualize and hold on to the love he and his wife had once shared....even as he didn't know whether or not she was alive or dead at that point.
posted by availablelight at 5:15 AM on March 5, 2007

A) Get help, per everything above.

B) To answer your question, you need to more closely examine the book of Job, the man who lost everything yet stood firm in his faith. I'm not saying it will be easy, but I am saying it has been done.

Faith isn't worth anything if it won't stand in the storm.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:32 AM on March 5, 2007

You, you, you.... There are a ton of comments here asking you to get help and focus on yourself. While I am not going to completely disagree, but I think the best way to help yourself and find meaning in this life is not through introspection. It is through helping others. Do some charity work where you have direct contact with the people you are helping. It will help to put your own pain into perspective, it will help you feel much better about yourself and you will help out someone else as well. Sometimes when we are in pain spending too much time thinking about that pain just makes things worse. Grieve for your losses and experience the pain, but focus your energy on something like charity to help lift you out of your grief.
posted by caddis at 8:05 AM on March 5, 2007

I'm gonna have to strongly disagree about the book of Job. If you "closely examine" it, you find that God comes off as just the sort of uncaring deity the poster is wrestling with now (killed Job's family on a bet to see if he'd lose his faith, e.g.). Job's sharp, detailed cricitisms of God's treatment aren't rebutted by his three friends at all, a point acknowledged by later writers who added a response from a fourth person, Elihu*, who furiously tells Job he shouldn't even be daring to ask the questions he's asking. Ultimately, God responds with a pagan power harumph, and Job repents in dust and ashes since he's seen God with his own eyes. In return, God gives him twice as much stuff as he had before and gives him a new set of kids to replace the ones he killed.

I've never quite seen the helpful lesson there for those who've suffered serious loss, and never understood how anyone could recommend it as a salve for grief. You're much better off with Pema Chödrön.

*noted in the Oxford Annotated edition
posted by mediareport at 8:14 AM on March 5, 2007

I come to this very late, and I don't have too much to offer. Only a response that I hope helps.

mediareport: "I'm gonna have to strongly disagree [with allkindsoftime] about the book of Job. If you "closely examine" it, you find that God comes off as just the sort of uncaring deity the poster is wrestling with now (killed Job's family on a bet to see if he'd lose his faith, e.g.). Job's sharp, detailed cricitisms of God's treatment aren't rebutted by his three friends at all, a point acknowledged by later writers who added a response from a fourth person, Elihu*, who furiously tells Job he shouldn't even be daring to ask the questions he's asking. Ultimately, God responds with a pagan power harumph, and Job repents in dust and ashes since he's seen God with his own eyes. In return, God gives him twice as much stuff as he had before and gives him a new set of kids to replace the ones he killed.

I've never quite seen the helpful lesson there for those who've suffered serious loss, and never understood how anyone could recommend it as a salve for grief. You're much better off with Pema Chödrön."

First of all, Elihu emphatically does not tell Job he shouldn't be asking questions. The cornerstone of his speeches is: "Examine thy religion." Second, Maimonides, a medieval scholar and quite possibly the most important rabbi besides Moses, taught that Job was being taught a lesson by God: an unexamined faith is utterly unfulfilling and unworthy, no matter the apparent glory which accompanies it. Maimonides' position, while sometimes disputed, is certainly one the two or three most important Rabbinical interpretations of Job; beyond that, it's the reading that makes the most sense to me.

And it was certainly personal for him. Maimonides' closest, dearest friend was his brother, a merchant who died in the prime of life in an accident at sea; it appears as though this affected Maimonides deeply. He speaks in one of his letters, too, about the deaths of dozens of people-- men, women, children-- in a mudslide that destroyed a synagogue on a Saturday while they were gathered to pray. He emphasizes that these were people that were in no conceivable sense engaged in evil activities at the moment they died. The obvious question is this: how can a good God kill off people with apparent indiscrimination? How can such suffering happen in the world if there is truly a plan behind it?

Maimonides' answer was this: these things happen for many reasons, but they are always an occasion for us to reflect on our faith and on our lives. This thoughtfulness and reflection is not just a leisure activity; it is a crucial part of our lives. The world does not make sense, and Judaism, like many other paths, attempts to chart a path through that nonsense.

But there is pleasure, somehow, in even the act of reflection. In Homer's Odyssey, a herder of pigs remarks that even painful suffering can be pleasurable later when we recall it or recount it to friends: it is part of who we are, that suffering, because we know that the thing that made it through that suffering without dying is ourselves. Aristotle claims that the bare act of existing is pleasing to humans; I believe this is true, though we sometimes don't realize it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: there may be "meaning" in the world. There may not be. It is our lot to wander between the two extremes; but this wandering in itself can ultimately be very fulfilling. The trick, I think, is maintaining wonder. There is all sorts of beauty and goodness soaked into everything in the world, and an openness to the strangeness of the world, despite the pain we might have encountered in the past, can lead us to happiness. This wondering openness is called by the trinity of Western religions "faith," but it might have other forms, too.

Not very good at wording things tonight. Hope that helps a little.
posted by koeselitz at 5:17 PM on March 5, 2007 [7 favorites]

Don't return the favour; pass it on :-)

All the best.
posted by flabdablet at 7:40 PM on March 5, 2007

Good luck, jefficator.

Now that's done... :)

koestilitz, Elihu clearly tells Job that men are not worthy of questioning God; his speech ends like so:

17 You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind,

18 can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

19 "Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.

20 Should he be told that I want to speak? [...]

23 The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.

24 Therefore, men revere him, for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart?

Like I said, he's a mouthpiece for later writers who were disturbed that Job's penetrating critique of God's unjust acts didn't get a good rebuttal. Elihu's whole schtick is the standard "God is just and good, end of story," which blatantly ignores the small detail that God just knocked off Job's wife and family on a playful bet from the Adversary. You can argue that he's not stomping on Job's right to ask the questions if you like, but it's just not true.
posted by mediareport at 8:59 PM on March 5, 2007

Dude. What a terrible thing to have happen. However, there is more. You're 23. That's young. You likely have many decades more. And the truth is, you can get past your loss. I can say that, as I lost a partner, managed to survive, and met someone else with whom I've shared my life now for 10 fantastic years.

Yes, I know you feel like someone reached in and tore your heart right out in as brutish a manner as possible. Your whole body feels violated, and you wish it would all end. Things you love are not pleasurable, because you've no one with whom to share them. This will pass, but until then, it will hurt. Offer up your pain in tribute to the love that remains.

Yes, the love, it remains. Your fiance died. All that's left is memory, and the love shared. Your pain is as real as anything can be. And it's important for you to feel that pain. But the pain will pass, and you'll remain, with the love still in your heart.

My deepest sympathy, really. I thought I was so bad-off, having been only been 31 when my partner died. You're so much younger.
posted by Goofyy at 7:57 AM on March 6, 2007

mediareport: "Like I said, he's a mouthpiece for later writers who were disturbed that Job's penetrating critique of God's unjust acts didn't get a good rebuttal. Elihu's whole schtick is the standard "God is just and good, end of story," which blatantly ignores the small detail that God just knocked off Job's wife and family on a playful bet from the Adversary. You can argue that he's not stomping on Job's right to ask the questions if you like, but it's just not true."

Elihu's "schtick" is something more like "God is so infinitely beyond our understanding and power that it makes no sense to make demands while our knowledge of the world is imperfect." He never once claims that "God is just and good by human standards." His point is more along the lines of "human standards are ultimately flawed." This makes a lot of sense to me.

The point of the book of Job is that Job was wrong to say what he did, even as what he said was so eloquent and so powerful. There are a wealth of lessons here: being wrong is not a sin; wisdom is the highest purpose of suffering; despair at apparent injustice is futile. When it comes down, if we're going to be faithful and thoughtful people, we have to get around the difficult question about how there can be injustice and suffering in the world if there's a God who cares. I believe that Job was taught that the way to get around that question is to consider one's own limitedness and to seek to embrace the good that remains around us.

It's not for nothing that Job is probably the most poetic of the holy books of Judaism.
posted by koeselitz at 11:58 AM on March 6, 2007 [7 favorites]

That was beautiful koeselitz.
posted by caddis at 2:22 PM on March 6, 2007

Job was wrong to say what he did

Well, that's certainly one way to explain away God's killing of Job's blameless wife and children.

It's not for nothing that Job is probably the most poetic of the holy books of Judaism.

I'm with you on the poetry, definitely. The book of Job has always been my favorite book in either of the Testaments; the poetry in God's "I am the power of Nature" speech is truly marvelous. Where you're going wrong, koeselitz, is in your confusion of the beauty of the poetry with the ridiculousness of the theology. Sorting the two out isn't that difficult.
posted by mediareport at 7:09 PM on March 6, 2007

I can't bear existence for fifty more years if this is all there is.

I too went have had rough existential times such as this. I find creating a wonderful salve, by which I mean some sort of artistic endeavor, though I'll claim art quite loosely in what I do. Crafts, perhaps. And the end of the process I will have fabricated something that didn't yet exist, that relied on me to make it so and is singular in existence and sometimes thats enough to keep me through awful days.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 10:44 AM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mediareport: Well, that's certainly one way to explain away God's killing of Job's blameless wife and children.

God didn't kill Job's wife. His wife in fact, lived to encourage Job to "curse God and die" (ref: Job 2:9). Neither did God kill Job's children, nor did He cause the loss of Job's wealth and health. What God did was not prevent Satan from doing those things. (ref: Job 1:12-22)

koeselitz sums up much of what the book of Job teaches very well.

I wanted to add this though. One lesson God wanted Job to know, and I think the purpose of God's speech in the four chapters of the book, is that what happened to Job wasn't meaningless, it was just unknowable. Job didn't understand why those tragedies happened to him. He didn't understand the implications or the causes. Neither Job nor do we have the benefit of God's perspective of the universe, and His perfect knowledge.

Sometimes, when life doesn't make sense, you fall back on a God who does.
posted by walljm at 10:11 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
posted by sgobbare at 6:40 AM on March 10, 2007

Sometimes, when life doesn't make sense, you fall back on a God who does.

*ahem* And how is it that you know this reassuring and comforting knowledge that the universe Makes Sense to God?

Life doesn't make sense to us, but it does to God? How, exactly is that accurately verifiable? Oh, wait, it isn't. You have to "believe" and have "faith" and assume God isn't some sort of utter git for the shit he pulled in the Old Testament.

In fact, the general history of belief boils down to this: life is hard, terrible, tough, full of senseless tragedy, full of senselessness from start to finish? Why? It can't be meaningless! Can it? Why, yes it can. You can either despair that knowledge or make one of two choices: (1)have faith that in the long run it DOES make sense, even if YOU can't understand it, well, God can and does and no matter how horrible the tragedy, somehow it all makes sense or (2) accept that it doesn't make sense and move on and make your own life make sense to you without having a trump card of "Well, it all makes sense to SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE".

God always came across as one ripe jerk in the Old Testament, and Jesus came along and put the fear of sympathy into the old man, which didn't exactly get carried on to the followers so well.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:24 PM on April 10, 2007

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