A lot of what I’ve done, and tried to do, throughout my entire life is find meaning. In anything: myself, others, relationships, breakups, situations, crises, feelings, my career, my psyche, my drunkenness, my childhood, my past, my future.
And now, I’ve been trying to find meaning in sobriety. Not just what does sobriety mean, but what is the meaning of sobriety, and what does it mean to me and my world?
Last semester, during my Counseling Theories & Models course, we learned about Existentialist Therapy. Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that places importance upon individuality, personal freedom and responsibility, and living with authenticity. It deals with acknowledging that we, as individuals, are responsible for our thoughts, beliefs, actions, emotions and outcomes; not only are we defined by our actions, but we are responsible for them, as well. We face this world alone, a world that sometimes feels meaningless and absurd, and we can become confused and disoriented when we’re confronted with that lovely existential angst: “a negative feeling arising from the experience of human freedom and responsibility. The archetypal example is the experience one has when standing on a cliff where one not only fears falling off it, but also dreads the possibility of throwing oneself off.”
Existentialism isn’t Nihilism. At least, not explicitly. There is a branch of philosophy called Existential Nihilism that essentially claims life is meaningless – we are barred from knowing the answers to our “whys” but are compelled to invent meaning for ourselves anyway. To the existential nihilist, there is no inherent reason to live, but there’s also no inherent reason to not live, either. We just…are.
Even with my own bouts of Nihilistic rage (which were a bit more frequent in early sobriety), I tend to lean more toward the classic views Existentialist philosophy. My world receives its meaning from me alone, and there is no meaning in the world beyond what I give it – just as there is no meaning in your world, beyond the meaning that you give it. There is absurdity. There are no good people, there are no bad people. I, and everyone else on this planet, creates their own meaning in this world. Søren Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist philosopher, proposed the idea that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or “authentically.”
I struggle with this because finding meaning is fucking hard. I often feel like Existentialism is the philosophy of both the terribly depressed and the most consistently happy people on earth. Because what do we do with all of this freedom in our hands? What do we do with this one life? How do we create such meaning? For some, it’s amazingly freeing. For others, it can feel like a ton of chains wrapped around each leg.
When I was drinking, I would fret over these things. it consumed me. What kind of meaning am I giving my life? Am I inconsequential? Am I wasting myself away into a puddle, the only “meaning” of my life being nothingness?
This sort of existential loneliness I was feeling was only exacerbated by being smacked in the face from all directions by the oh-so-perfect lives of my social media contacts. You know, FOMO, aka the Fear of Missing Out. Fear of missing out on EVERYTHING – the perfect bodies, the vacations, the parties, the amazing careers, the beautiful families, the fairytale weddings, on and on and on. Everyone on social media seems so fucking perfect. It’s a well-documented (if only anecdotally) societal phenomenon, a problem that will probably only get worse as we become more consumed by one another, rather than turning inward to love and value ourselves and the people closest to us.
And I just can’t…fucking…deal with it anymore. Sitting behind a computer/phone screen, scrolling through useless bullshit from people who I barely know, who are only sharing the best 2% of their lives, is making me feel void, empty, dull. At the same time that I’m cognitively aware of how dumb is to be indulging in other people’s lives like this, I’m actively wishing I could be just like them. Their lives seem to have meaning. Their lives seem to be of consequence. I mean, I’m looking, aren’t I? There must be something important to this.
And as I get further into sobriety and meaning-making, the further I get into realizing how detrimental social media is for me personally. If I’m judged by my actions, then that makes me a sad, jealous woman who wishes she was rocking near-impossible six-pack abs in the middle of the Caribbean while writing amazing travel blogs and teaching yoga classes from my fancy Yoga studio on a boat, and then going out afterward to RESPONSIBLY enjoy a SINGLE glass of wine at the fancy new tapas restaurant in town. Right.
Existentialism asks, what am I? What is the context of my world? If everything is inherently meaningless until I define it, what do I want to do with this incredible opportunity? How can I live more authentically?
A nihilist might ask, what is the point in staying sober, when life has no meaning anyhow?
A existentialist might ask, what’s the point in continued drinking, when I have the chance to define my life as I want it to be?
For me, I’m beginning to learn the answers. Or, at least, I’m beginning to open my ears and eyes and heart to the answers. I’m willing to try. The funny part is that it’ll probably take a lifetime of learning before I come to a better understanding – at which point, I’ll be close to dying anyway. But I know I can’t get there while I’m busy being concerned with what others are doing all the time. For now, I have to teach myself to put the phone down, close the computer, and instead of sitting and ruminating in my own head, I have to learn to lift my eyes to the beautiful, meaningless, absurd world outside and take it all in with my tired, excited, sober eyes.