Me, We, and the Meaning of Life

I sometimes ask my clients, “What gets you up in the morning – what gives your life meaning?” The answers I get can usually be placed in one of two categories. The first is a category about being in control of one’s life, achieving one’s goals, and ‘getting ahead’. Talk in this category is about work, sports or other recreational activities, personal development of all kinds, and making one’s mark in the world. The second is a category about relating, feeling close to others, feeling supportive of others and supported in turn, loving and being loved, and ‘getting along’. Talk in this category is about family, friends, giving and receiving, spiritual connections or being connected to other living creatures.

What has always struck me about these two categories is that the activities and goals in each are almost contradictory and yet inextricably linked. While one needs self-focus in order to be in charge of one’s life or ‘get ahead’, one needs other-focus in order to love, be loved and ‘get along’. And yet it would be very difficult to ‘get ahead’ without being connected to others, and it would be difficult to ‘get along’ without having self control.

We’re told that the western world is in the middle of an existential crisis. People are struggling to maintain their relationships, and the ills associated with relationship breakdown are well-documented. Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicide have all been linked to social distress. The blame for relationship breakdown is often laid at the door of individualism – the tendency to promote the good of the individual above the good of other people or the community. This tendency has been described as self-centred and egocentric, and it is proposed that relationships (with family, friends, and the larger society) are being sacrificed in the striving for individual power and wealth in the West.

We are led to believe that we now have to choose between looking after ourselves or looking after others; between making ourselves happy or making other people happy; between putting ourselves first or putting other people first. We are presented with a single continuum, with being selfish at one end and being unselfish at the other end. We are led to believe that people are either takers (“it’s all about me”) or givers (“it’s all about you”). The popular literature suggests that the takers just need to be more giving and the givers just need to take more for everyone to be happy. There has been an explosion of self-help books about how to increase personal happiness, and a parallel increase in books on how to improve relationships. People attend workshops and read voraciously to try and find recipes for successful relationships or personal happiness.

I think that their basic premise is just wrong. Here’s what I think: Every human has two fundamental, parallel, and imperative developmental tasks and, from the day we are born to the day we die, we must attend to them both. The one task is to be autonomous and self-sufficient, and the other task is to be intimately connected to the people around us. These two life tasks are both essential for our survival, our reproduction, and our life satisfaction. Importantly, one cannot replace the other; success in one does not guarantee success in the other; and it is the balance between the two that matters most. It is not an either/or situation – the never-ending tension between the two tasks must be constantly monitored for balance, and adjustments made to maintain an optimal balance.

As we develop from being very young to being very old, the tension between maintaining our independence (with its ability to ensure our survival) and maintaining our connectedness to others (with its ability to ensure our emotional safety and practical support) exists. On a daily basis, we monitor our progress, with reflections like, “I need to pay more attention to my friends and family” or “I need to look after myself more”. Undoubtedly, there are people who are more or less comfortable in each of those roles – depending on temperament and life experiences – but we neglect either at our peril. Neglect yourself and you will become burnt out (e.g., by parenting, taking care of ailing relatives, practicing a helping profession): Neglect your relationships with others and you will become isolated and lonely (e.g., by withdrawing from social networks, rejecting the people close to you, focusing only on your personal goals).

When we have these two tasks in balance, we are able to move from one to the other in a fluid shift of attention, and our lives are filled with positive meaning. That’s why I’ve called this article, “Me, We, and the Meaning of Life”.


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