Of all the reasons we work, the effort to leave a
footprint to mark our passing on the earth is the
most compelling. Among those who come to me
with their stories, it is easy to get caught up in
the medical cycle of diagnosis and treatment.
It is not hard to recognize depression and anxiety,
the two most common disorders of those who seek help
from a psychiatrist. The fact that we now have
medications that are effective in lifting these
burdens from people can obscure the fact that
happiness is much more than the absence of
I often tell people that the medicine I am about to
give them is designed only to relieve the burden of
depression: The crushing weight, the cloud,
the shackles that rob their lives of pleasure, their
nights of sleep, and their closest relationships of
the simple joys of companionship and intimacy.
For many people, this is more than enough
help. Relief from a pain long endured is a
state devoutly to be wished, and people are
grateful. For many, it is like being freed
from prison, though the important question
remains: free to do what?
And yet, pleasure is not the absence of pain, nor is health
the absence of disease. It is what we do and who we
are with that makes us happy. In a larger sense, our
mortality confronts us with questions of meaning. What
is the point of our daily struggles? Most of us now
have the leisure to contemplate the reasons driving our work
and our play.
There is a
certain emptiness to the simple equation of work and
consumption. ("I shop, therefore I am.")
None of us are young enough or rich enough to live up to the
icons we create to stoke the engines of commerce. No one
is immune to these influences, but all of us are in danger of
endorsing the superficiality they purvey. The pictures of
people in stores trampling each other to get to bargains on the
aptly named "Black Friday" after Thanksgiving are both
revealing and disturbing.
In our daily lives, questions of personal worth are recurrent,
if seldom articulated. This is never more evident than in
the lives of those who retire. We are so defined by our
work that our identities without it are in question.
Unless we have something else to anchor us, we are in danger of
disappearing, of becoming unseen by those who are still
"productive." Our families provide the most
obvious continuing connections to a meaningful life. In
this society, however, the status of the elderly is sufficiently
devalued that even family ties are freighted with questions of
mental and physical decline.
The groundwork for this unenviable state has been laid in the
choices we make when young. The nature of most
work--repetitive and unsatisfying--guarantees that we think of
our jobs as little more than a means to support ourselves and to
enable us to pursue leisure activities that commonly add little
to our sense of personal significance. We are, in short,
starved for meaning.
I am convinced that this vacuum is what accounts for our
fondness for organized religion. Deprived of a clear sense
of purpose or satisfaction, apprehensive about the significance
of our lives, fearful of the apparent finality of death, we are
desperate for an explanation for our existence and eager for
some reassurance that there is a guiding purpose behind our
daily struggles. . . . But religious belief is not the only path
to a life of meaning. It is possible to revere our world
and the people in it, to accept the uncertainty that is the
hallmark of our world, and to place one's faith in the angels of
our better nature. Above all, we might do well to
cultivate a certain humility about our particular conception of
what constitutes an ethical life and be willing to accept those
who peacefully disagree with us.