Death is an inevitable part of being human. It is something we cannot escape yet this is precisely what we try to do on a consistent basis. According to many existential thinkers, the inevitability of death makes life meaningless. In order to find meaning in the “average everydayness” of life, people feel compelled to suppress the knowledge of their mortality. Anxiety is the reason for this – and also the symptom of truyl facing death. Anxiety is the state at which we realize the possibility of not being around anymore – of non-being. Anxiety IS the awareness of death. This is an unpleasant, uncomfortable, and difficult feeling in which to exist…so we actively flee it.
We protect our denial of death with religious views, philosophical opinions or meaningless conversations. Any talk about death is objectified rather than personal, and in this way, we can delude ourselves into believing we are facing death while continuing to run away from it. And why not? Why should anyone be uncomfortable? For what purpose? Ah, well, here is why the realization and acknowledgement of the inevitability of death should be embraced:
Death-anxiety serves as motivation to live more fully.
Remember the book/movie, Fight Club? Edward Norton played the main character in the film, and his character was only able to feel truly alive when he attended support groups for individuals who were dying of chronic illnesses. He said about attending the meetings, “Losing all hope was freedom. Every morning I died, and every morning I was born again, resurrected.” When he listened to the stories of the group members who talked about their personal impending deaths and how they expressed their anxieties, he realized his death on a personal level. Through the realization of his own death, he felt the meaning of his life. Of course, for him, it was only temporary because he returned to his everyday life filled with pointless chatter and ongoing small-talk relationships. His feelings of living fully disappeared because he went back to ignoring that he would, one day, cease to exist. He only felt the true value and meaning of his life when he entered the meeting rooms again because this was the only time he really faced his death in a personal way.
The denial of death enables individuals to ignore what is important to them and to take life for granted, denying the responsibility of living more meaningful and truly authentic lives. The inevitability of death also reveals how, ultimately, every person is alone in the world because dying is an individual process. In facing this essential aloneness, a person can accept his or her self-responsibility because it is up to the individual to choose how he or she will live this life.
Meaning-making is a powerful theme in existentialism and yet its definition varies from one philosopher to another. What all existentialists agree upon, however, is that all human beings search for meaning and personal identity in their lives. Jean-Paul Sartre (1965/1993) described existentialism as a movement “to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (p. 36). He meant that all human beings try to find meaning in a world that is meaningless. They do this by creating various religions to support their beliefs about a potential life that exists beyond material existence. Sartre, obviously, was an atheist. He believed that human beings create artificial concepts through self-serving illusions and that these created constructs are not truly meaningful because absolute “meaning” does not exist at all. For Sartre, life and death were both considered meaningless – it is meaning-less that we live and it is meaning-less that we die, and because of this daunting fact, people must make their own meaning by what they choose to do in life. This happens through the intentions and interactions they have in the world.
Victor Frankl did not agree with Sartre’s interpretation about meaning-making at all. He believed that true meaning existed in life and that human beings could find meaning through suffering and through life experiences. By having a will to live through adversity, human beings find meaning. He truly believed that meaning was ever-present in the world and that the primary mission in life was to find meaning. In finding meaning, a person needed to step outside of him or herself – what that meant for Frankl was that meaning-making was not introspective at all but transcending.
Like Frankl, Søren Kierkegaard also believed in suffering as a means to make meaning. He proposed that individuals had to suffer despair throughout their lives, but he emphasized the necessity to move beyond the idea of human existence, which he believed was deficient. Kierkegaard believed in faith, but he stressed that doubt was the rational part of a human being. For Kierkegaard, individuals needed to doubt to have faith because, without doubt, faith had no value. Faith in God would be meaningless without first having doubt about the existence of God. For him, we needed to doubt to have faith and faith to make meaning.
While Frankl, Sartre, and Kierkegaard emerged from immensely different personal belief systems, all three of these philosophers represented existentialism through their world views and their personal beliefs. This just demonstrates how appropriate and crucial it is for counselors to first construct a personal understanding of meaning and human development before using existential concepts in the counseling relationship.
*Sartre, J. P. (1993). Essays in existentialism. New York: Carol Publishing Group.