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Concept of Meaning in My Life: Reflective Essay

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“Man, first of all, is the being who hurls himself towards a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being the future” (Sartre in Cooper & McLeod, 2011, p19)

In these modern times, there is little appreciation of the value of Philosophy, a discipline that is two and a half thousand years old. Many dismiss it out of hand, maintaining they have no time for it. Yet as Alex Howard (2000b, p) so rightly points out everyone practises some type of philosophy, whether they realise it or not. “We cannot escape from philosophy: when people say that they do not know any philosophy, what is really meant is that they know only one philosophy, but they have no means of locating or assessing it. As a result, it structures everything they do and care about. It also prevents them from considering alternatives or placing immediate preoccupations into a larger perspective.”

Many people subscribe to the contemporary Capitalist model unquestioningly, whilst bemoaning the relentless stress and alienation of modern society. Sad to be so controlled and defined by forces that one is not aware of. Perhaps one of the positives that may emerge from the escalating climate crisis is the development of a more sustainable and community-based way of life with improved health and happiness as by-products. In the middle of the current mental health crisis and limited resources, one could do worse than join a philosophy group, for instance, the school of philosophy which is currently offering ten-week courses at the discounted price of ten euros. This is a forum to discuss the core issues that concern most people and to meet like-minded others. Philosophy deals with the very questions that bring many to therapy: what is the meaning of my life? How can I be happy? How can I handle stress? As Howard rightly points out there are many ways, other than Therapy, up the mountain. “Philosophy underpins therapy as a means to healing, identity, direction and meaning. It deserves more attention. For that matter, many others have much to offer on the subjects of healing and meaning: poets, painters, essayists, novelists, players and composers. Healing and purpose are far too large and important to be the property of just one group of professionals or care specialists, be they doctors, psychologists, counsellors or whoever.” (2000b, p)

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is an interesting example. Although he did not identify himself as such, he is recognised as the most prominent of the Philosophers of the Existential School. He lived during World War II, a time of major social-political upheavals when the old order was being overturned. These experiences clearly influenced his philosophy. Witnessing the human instinct to maintain the status quo through the collusion of ordinary fellow French citizens, including himself, during the Nazi occupation of France deeply affected him (Aronson, 1980). He experienced the very real pitfalls of being inauthentic. Despite his affiliation to Marxism, his philosophy was very individualistic and a departure from the traditional collectivist paradigm. Having lived through an era of the tyranny of a Final Solution, little wonder that Sartre was open to multiplicity and non-conformity. Sartre maintained that, in the absence of a God, existence is primary, and essence then follows. “It is a matter of envisaging the self, as a little God which inhabits me and which possesses my freedom as a metaphysical virtue.”(Sartre in Howard, 2000, p344). Sartre focuses on Individualism to the exclusion of culture, race, heritage, religion, community, family and other influences that most mortals adhere to. According to Howard (2000a), Sartre’s notion of self as the individual is the one used today.

Pluralism mirrors the post-modernist, post-structuralist individualism of Sartre (Cooper & McLeod, 2011). Pluralism is significant, and probably unique, as though its approach is evidence-based, its philosophical foundations are ethically orientated. This approach is firmly rooted in specific philosophical beliefs and is value oriented. The Pluralistic philosophy may be a post-modernist 21st-century creature, but its ancestry stretches back to pre-Socratic philosophers who celebrated nature’s diversity. Emerging from the awareness of the horrors of the 20th Century, Pluralism also values diversity and multiplicity though its approach is more pragmatically orientated. Sartre built quite an ivory tower in the notion of the Self as an exclusive divinity. Similar, to Pluralism, Sartre was influenced by Levinas’ ideas (Howard, 2000). Emmanuel Levinas (in Cooper & McLeod, 2011, p15) emphasises that the recognition and respect of others is intrinsic to an ethical relationship, ‘openness to the infinite diversity of others, and to honour and prize them in all their uniqueness.’ That the therapeutic relationship is bigger than its individual parts.

Whereas Pluralism explores the world of the Other from the perspective of the client, Sartre seems to be more focused on the Otherness of the individual, the self. He focused on the notions of Freedom, Choice and Responsibility. Cooper and McLeod (2011) acknowledge their existential roots, not that Pluralism is necessarily therapeutically existential but ethically existential. Viewing the Client as the subject, not the object, of Therapy. They adopted Sartre’s idea of Man as “future orientated beings who set for ourselves particular goals and aims and then find ways of working towards them” (2011, p19). Cooper and McLeod credit Sartre’s teachings with them placing client Goals at the core of Pluralistic Therapy.

Just as Sartre thought the world a far more absurd place than we took cognisance of, pluralism is the philosophy of a ’messy universe’. Cooper and McLeod see the world as being complex, not reducible to monistic principles but full of potentiality. They maintain it is therapeutically beneficial to be open and engaged with this richness and diversity. ‘Our experience of the world is more comparable to the relation to our desks in the middle of a project than to the desk after the project has been completed (Connolly in Cooper and McLeod, 2011, p)

Sartre believed that we are responsible for our existence and what we do with it. This resonates with Victor Frankl’s logotherapy (:2004) and Glasser’s (1998) ideal that all we can control are our actions, regardless of circumstances. Glasser maintains that all the world gives us is information and we have choices as to how we interpret this data and how we behave. Choice Theory is an accessible and uplifting philosophy that can free clients from the shackles of victimhood and shows them that, tough and all as the choices may be, there is usually room for improvement.

Sartre believed that people are never fully satisfied because there is always a sense of unfilled potential. We always want to be more. “The being of human reality is suffering because it rises in being as perpetually haunted by a totality which it is without being able to be it, precisely because it could not attain the in-itself without losing itself as for-itself” (Sartre in Howard, 2011, p342). This may appear bleak but is also strangely consoling because it is in the acceptance that life is hard that makes it less so (Scott Peck, ). Glasser (1998) and Frankl (:2004) both maintained that regardless of how dire circumstances are, there is always the possibility of doing something that will make things better. As Choice Theory maintains Quality is ever improving (Glasser, 1998).

According to Sartre “Human reality is it's own surpassing towards what it lacks” (Howard, 2000, p). That the nature of things is to be always grasping and that anxiety is normal. That one is anxious by virtue of being alive. Which is in keeping with the current neuroscientific thought that humans are hardwired to be anxious, that it is a survival instinct (Hanson, ). Apparently, the brain, ever alert to danger, wants us alive, it does not care if we are miserable or not, As the politically controversial, but popular existential Psychologist, Dr Jordan Peterson points out he has no problem understanding anxiety, depression or addiction because life is tough, and we are all going to die. he is surprised more people do not have all three (12 rules). From a clinical perspective, clients are often anxious about being anxious that there is a faulty belief as CBT () explains that one should be happy all the time causes distress. Pluralism is born of evidence that it’s often the secondary symptoms that cause distress and that for many clients the normalising of anxiety is very therapeutic. Wubbolding (2000), a Reality Therapist, outlines effective Paradoxical techniques that include embracing and even prescribing the symptoms thereby lessening their distressing nature.

Sartre explored the authentic versus inauthentic self which has echoes of Roger's self-actualised self (). Sartre cautioned against being trapped by roles, that life is full of potentiality. One of the reasons Sartre was attracted to Marxism was because he believed its anti-materialism could free people from economic shackles, but he had had little time for society or community. He believed that what we make of ourselves is influenced by what we imagine others make of us. That “we never lose sight of the fact that we are looked at, and we execute the ensemble of acts which we have come to perform in the presence of the look; better yet we attempt to constitute a being and an ensemble of objects this look” (Sartre in Howard, 2011, p343). Sartre maintained that you know a man by his actions (Howard, 2000). Sartre’s notion of the Human-Being-for-itself, being renewing and ever-changing. He believed that Being-for-others could be a trap and could cause alienation from the authentic self, losing touch with one’s essence and creativity. Being-for-others observed the object for others. In ‘Being for others’ I lose myself and become an alienated object. It does seem that if one is not being true to oneself that there is a tendency towards anxietying, depressing and other controlling behaviours, for instance, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As if one’s creativity turns in on self-destructively. From a Glasserian Needs perspective, the most important Need is Belonging (1998). Belonging with self must be the foundation for Belonging with others to be genuine and beneficial. Jordan Peterson talks about the importance of speaking one’s truth or Locus, that every time one lies it weakens one ().

Sartre was big on responsibility. That one is absolutely free and absolutely responsible (Howard, 2000). He believed that blaming circumstances or others was moral cowardice, that you are responsible and that blaming is irresponsible and acting in bad faith. Actions speak louder than words. Decisions and intentions count far more than past circumstances; what matters is what we make of environments and events. Like Glasser (1980), Sartre had little time for feelings. The client locates, reassesses and takes responsibility for important decisions, interpretations and intentions. Each of these is regarded as more fundamental than particular thoughts or feelings. One acts and then understands one action; one might act out of necessity or habit. In therapy, it is helpful for clients to learn from prior behaviour and to integrate that learning. This parallels the Moral Inventory process of 12-step programmes where recovering people reflect on past mistakes and learn from them (Alcoholics Anonymous, ).

The thrust of Sartre’s philosophy from a psychological perspective seems to be to push on regardless of how one’s feels, which merges with Choice Theory (1998) and Logotherapy (Frankl, 2004). Neuroscientists have discovered that when one resolves to gradually face and overcome fear, rather than avoid it, this activates the attack rather than defensive areas of the brain and has a calming effect (Hanson, ). There is also evidence that when people explore new environments, they activate genes that would not be otherwise activated (Peterson, ). Sartre promoted the benefit of reflecting on the past and getting learning: I am wiser because of my mistakes (Howard, 2000). Glasser (1998) believed if one is living and functioning effectively in the present, the past has less of a hold.

Furthermore, according to Sartre change involves pain or angst. People, in the main, dislike change, the brain resists it, even just in terms of learning new stuff. There is a therapeutic task in overcoming the natural tendency to sacrifice the future self for the present self (Peterson, ). If you settle for what you are, you renounce what you could become (Howard, 2000). A very useful Anxiety hack Jordan Peterson (), applies with clients is to forensically examine the specific anxiety and explore how one has dealt with it in the past. Then develop a strategy around how one will deal with it going forward thus reassuring the mind that things are under control. The strategy or solution need not be fool-proof, but once the mind believes one has a plan it tends to calm down and stop obsessing.

Despite the obvious dichotomy between existentialism and Marxism, Sartre did concede that Man may be partially ‘made’/formed/influenced by climate, the earth, race, class, language, history, childhood and events. As a Marxist, Sartre believed there was an onus on the government to improve the plight of the underprivileged. Yet like Glasser (1998) and Frankl (:2004), he maintained that “adversity in things cannot be an argument against our freedom.” In essence, there is a possibility that challenge can make one stronger as explored by Antifragile (). “A particular crag, which manifests a profound resistance if I wish to displace it, will be on the contrary a valuable aid if I want to climb upon it in order to look over the countryside” (Howard, 2000, p)

As Howard explains (2000, p349), Sartre believed that ‘I exist, I choose, I project, I act and then I discover myself. I exist, and in so doing, I choose, I project, I think, action, I thereby construct and discover myself. I do therefore I am. The Locus of control is internal. Sartre, like Frankl :(2004), believed that we make meaning within what we choose, engage with and intend. Meaning is not be ‘found’ since there is no meaning in any absolute sense. Despite his depressing fictional characters, he maintains that those who set goals and work towards them are more fulfilled. Neuroscience has discovered that goals can act as an analgesic (Hanson, ).

Once more this resonates strongly with a Choice theory that one only has control over one’s behaviour and that all one can do is behave. This also parallels 12-step programmes where members are encouraged to clean their side of the street and to act their way into good thinking, rather than wishing or thinking their way into good acting. ‘Bring the body and the mind follows’ and ‘do the next right thing’ sums up the essence of AA ().

Being-for-others is the ‘me’ that is an observed object for others making something of themselves – co-dependency.

It is absurd that we are born, it is absurd that we die.

Existential psychoanalysis as seeking to determine the original choice.

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“Human reality is it's own surpassing toward what it lacks, it surpasses itself towards the particular being which it would be if it were what it is” (ibid p89)

Quite depressing, notion of never been satisfied, obviously depressive cf we are unfinished articles.

Human reality is by nature an unhappy consciousness with no possibility of surpassing its unhappy state”. Ibid p90 shot me now – presuming Sartre's philosophy was a big departure

Being-for-itself was that restless spirit that moved on from whatever we had made of ourselves. To finally make ourselves was to die. To be alive was to be forever renewing – Glasser quality & better to make meaning one’s focus rather than happiness. JBP. Don’t sacrifice your future self for your present self.

Sartre didn’t have much time for thoughts and feelings which is in keeping with neuroscience & how much anxiety is hardwired.

Preoccupation with past influences is irresponsible – an act of bad faith.

Decisions and intentions count more for more than past circumstances. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. What matters is what we make of environments and events.

We make meaning within we choose, engage with and intend. Meaning is not absolute, not to be found. Is it personal?

Actions speak louder than words. Bring body, the mind follows – act into good thinking

Actions and words and thoughts and motives are interconnected. Know oneself in behaviour. – all we can do is behave = is it different or contradictory of rt – closely aligned

Analytically appraise the philosophy of ethics and how it informs a therapist's and researcher's work.

From a therapeutic perspective and despite its limitations, Sartre’s philosophy has much to recommend it, particularly in the focus on actions and projects. The belief that regardless of genetics, history, circumstances or trauma people always have options is empowering. Sartre’s concept of Man as ”meaning-seeking, purposeful beings” (Cooper & McLeod, 2011, p19).

Sartre’s philosophy has much to offer therapeutically. It is inspiring and future-orientated. It is probably most applicable for deep thinkers and the more cerebral client. Obviously, it has limitations. It would be neither appropriate nor therapeutically beneficial to assert and insist that clients’ problems were of their own making. This is unlike to help the therapeutic aligning that is an important part of counselling (Cooper & McLeod, 2011) or the processing that is often a key element to help clients make sense of their worlds. Also, most people are not bombast enough to reject society’s norms (even if it is just for loved ones, particularly for children’s sake). Sartre may have brazened it out with his arrangement with Simone de Beauvoir but one might wonder how happy she was with the arrangement.

Akin to Choice Theory (1998) with its negligence of emotions, that are certain issues that Sartre’s philosophy would be unlikely to be appropriate for. Therapists need to ascertain how useful it is to focus on client responsibility. For instance, in the case of bereavement or trauma, it is downright insensitive to suggest that the client is responsible. A more person-centred or mindful approach would be more appropriate and therapeutic, creating a space the client and allowing them to process their grief and or trauma.

Sartre suggests meaning is an individual endeavour, he did not entertain meaning as a social activity or the collective unconscious. Similar to Choice theory, ethically it may not be suitable to practice in a purist way with certain clients the centrality of choice. Particularly with clients from more collectively orientated cultures such as the Traveller Community (cf ethnicity book). Thus, it is beneficial to soften notions of choice, within what they see as the confines of their cultural norms. The writer has found in many years of working closely with Travellers that they are suspicious of making plans or being future orientated as they can associate plans with trauma. Previously they may have planned something, for instance, a trip and then often tragedy has befallen (because they experience so much crisis) and then the association is made between planning and bad luck. So useful to adapt/adjust. Ethically it may appear a harsh and unsympathetic philosophy. Howard argues that there are some unnegotiable givens like needing water to live. The pluralistic perspective it is as ever most appropriate to work in a way that fits the individual client.

Not unlike Reality Therapy, Sartre's neglect of emotion is a significant therapeutic limitation. Often it is important to explore feelings in order to heal. Research has shown (Cooper & McLeod, 2011) that the most effective way to work with clients is the way that best suits the individual.

Though it is probably more effective to focus on meaning than happiness, Sartre did not appear to believe in the possibility of happiness (). Glasser did understand the importance of relationships as a source of contentment (1998). Whereas Sartre places little value on relationships which possibly explains his depressive outlook.

The advantage of the Pluralistic approach is that would can integrate multiple ideas and cherry-pick what works. Glasser understood the importance of relationships as a source of contentment (1998). Whereas Sartre places little value on relationships which possibly explains his depressive outlook.

Many valid answers. No one privileged standpoint. Reality is coloured by perspective. My version. Subjective. Curiosity about the other. All perspectives have validity.

Being-for-itself is that restless spirit that moves on from whatever we had made of itself.

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