There are times when things just seem to be stacked against you.
No matter what you do, no matter how you try to hold yourself up and keep going, life just keeps pushing you back down.
I’m sure everyone will find themselves in a time like this, at some point in their lives. I’m sure you already have.
How do we get through those times? What gives us the strength to keep going when all we really want to do is dive under the covers and hope it all goes away?
The answer is meaning.
The Hierarchy of Needs – and why it’s wrong
You might have come across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before. It postulates that our most basic needs – food, shelter, survival – are the most important to us, and everything else comes secondary to those. It’s usually shown as a pyramid that looks like this:
But if that’s accurate, why do people regularly sacrifice themselves for others? Why did some people in Nazi concentration camps in the second world war save their fellow prisoners at the expense of their own lives?
That’s a question that Viktor Frankl answers in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, and the answer, of course, is because sacrificing themselves gave their lives meaning.
It’s meaning that is our most important drive. And it’s the very thing that is missing – if Frankl is to be believed – from contemporary western culture. Frankl calls the lack of meaning in life an existential vacuum. And it’s prevalent in western, particularly American, culture.
In fact, according to Frankl:
“A statistical survey revealed that among my European students, 25 per cent showed a more-or-less marked degree of existential vacuum. Among my American students it was not 25 but 60 per cent.”
This book was first published in 1946, I can only imagine that those figures are even less favourable now. Given the increasing homogenisation of western culture, I suspect that the difference between them has considerably narrowed, too.
I mentioned this book in passing in my last post, and now I’ve nearly come to the end of it, I’m sharing it again because I think it’s particularly relevant to us as artists.
Why we’re so lucky
We’re concerned with meaning every time we come to create something at the easel, every time we make a mark. The meaning may not be explicit, but images are a basic form of human communication. What we’re doing when we draw, when we paint, is communicating meaning.
And we also have a ready channel, one that most people don’t have, that we can use to explore what’s meaningful to us in our own lives. We have a process we can use – the generation of our work – to find meaning.
How lucky are we? We have an answer to the most imperative problem facing modern society – or at least a ready means to find it.
What we need to understand, though, is that meaning is different for everybody.
There’s a great example in Frankl’s book about a patient of his who had lost his wife and couldn’t find a reason to carry on. In fact, when I was recently in hospital, the patient opposite me had exactly the same problem. He’d all but given up living.
Frankl helped his patent find meaning through the understanding that it would have been much worse for his wife if the patient himself had died first, and she had been left alone instead. By outliving his wife, this man had saved her the pain of living on alone. He’d found meaning for his suffering, and found it easier to bear.
So I can’t tell you what your meaning is, I can’t even help you find it. I can tell you what mine is, though, and there’s more than one for me.
Meaning is personal
First are my kids. Both our boys are adopted. Without us, they may very well have grown up in care, and had difficult lives. The knowledge that we’ve saved them from that, and that we’ve saved one of them from a life complicated by learning difficulties gives my life most of its meaning.
But I’ve also had an opportunity recently to find new meaning in some difficult circumstances. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll know I’ve had some illness over the last few months.
Just recently, I learned from the specialists that my illness is progressive – i.e. it’s spreading – and the consultants at the hospital don’t know what’s causing it. They tell me that we’re in uncharted territory, they’ve never seen this before, so all they can do is try different therapies to see what works.
The hardest thing for me about this is that I want – I need – to be there for my boys as they grow. Nothing is more important to me. Having so much uncertainty in my future is difficult.
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t times when I’m too weak to handle this well. Of course there are, I’m human. But I’ve also found some meaning in this.
Even if I can’t always be the Dad I’d like to be for my boys, I can set them an example. I can try to show them a way to approach difficulties with dignity and strength, to rise above and not to give up.
And funnily enough, it’s the very fact that I need to show them this that helps me rise above it. It’s knowing that I must try to be a good example for them that helps me to be that example, that helps me to get out of bed in the morning and go on with the day.
Meaning and art
I’m not entirely clear yet how this relates to my work. But I have a feeling about it.
The useful thing about the creation of art is that it allows us to explore. We don’t have to know the destination when we start. We can find our path as the steps appear beneath our feet.
Ideas about impermanence have started to appear in my work lately, sometimes explicitly and sometimes less so. I know that my recent experiences have left me with a much deeper appreciation of the fragility of life, and also of its beauty, and the importance of taking the time to notice and appreciate it.
I think we’re really lucky to have this vehicle, this process that we can use to explore where our own meaning might lie. The creation of art is a struggle, I don’t think anyone who reads here would disagree with that.
But out of that struggle can come the meaning that sustains us through our lives, and particularly through difficult times. So really, we’re lucky to have this struggle available to us, and we should embrace it with open arms.
Through the last few months, gratitude has become very important in my life. I’ve had a couple of close shaves and I’m very grateful that I’m still here.
But I’m also grateful that I became ill. I know that sounds odd, but I’m not writing it for effect. I truly am grateful, because I’ve learned things that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Because it’s given me opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had; an opportunity to be a better example to my kids.
If you can find meaning in your difficulties, something that makes sense of them and gives you a reason to fight them, then the struggle becomes that much easier.
We all have to find our own meaning, there is no one single answer. And there may be multiple answers for you, or different answers at different times in your life.
Whatever difficulties you’re living through, I hope you can find the meaning that will help you overcome them. That’s a job you need to do for yourself.
I want to finish this post with poem by William Stafford, one of my favourites. I think it’s particularly relevant to us as artists. The thread he’s talking about, I think, is meaning and the search for it.
The Way it Is, William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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