Aging and The Meaning of Life

"We do not exist for ourselves." Thomas Merton
My family, friends and I have just celebrated my 73rd birthday. That number, 73, made me stop and think about the passage of time. How can I be 73 when I used to be 23? Of course, the dominant thought and answer is the fact that time moves on inevitably. Indeed it does. That begs the next question, what is life all about? What is the meaning of life? In the end, that is a question all of us try to answer.
Irwin Yalom, one of the great psychiatrists of our time, in an interview for Psychology Today Magazineregarding the meaning of life, said,
"I think all kinds of meanings in life transcend your self. They’re linked to other generations of people around us, to our children and our family. We’re passing on something of ourselves to others. I feel that’s what makes our life full of meaning. It’s hard to have meaning in a closet, encapsulated by nothing. I think you really have to expand yourself and your life and do what you can for other people."
People have asked me why I returned to work after having retired. The answer is fairly simple. Besides the fact that I found retirement profoundly boring, I wanted to return to doing something that always gave my life meaning. I like being a clinical social worker. I like working with people in psychotherapy. I like the feeling that I am helping people find meaning in their lives. Comprehensive Counseling Services are available.
Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, learned a lot about the meaning of life as he watched many die, and others survive, the horrors of the camps. Writing about the meaning of life in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, he states:
"This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human beingwho affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."
Some of the existentialists of the twentieth century believed that life has no meaning. Writing about one of his high school science teachers, Frankl remembered his declaring to the class:
"Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation." Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, "Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?"
Camus, Sartre and other Existentialists felt much the same. Like Frankl and Yalom, I cannot agree. My life is meaningful because of the responsibility I bear to my fellow human beings, including my family and friends. Call it being spiritual, call it being religious, call it what you want, but, we must all find the meaning of life for ourselves or we suffer despair.
Erik Erikson writes about this when he discusses the Eight Stages of Man in his book, Childhood and Society.
In the eighth and final stage of development, a man or woman looks back on their life and assesses their achievements. If there is a sense of having achieved goals, then life feels complete. This completion is what makes life successful. According to both Yalom and Frankl, that success in life includes relating to other people. As John Dunn wrote centuries ago, "no man is an island." We interact with and need one another.
Finally, "Because it is essential to our health, we are continuously motivated to seek the experience of purpose and meaning. It is like food, an everyday desire. Like sex, it is not a longing that can be satisfied in a "once and for all" way."
If you are in a life crisis, dealing with feelings of emptiness and depression, comprehensive services are available. Dr. Schwartz can be reached at [email protected] and he can be found at his website at

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