Updated: Nov 25, 2022
**Rick and Morty spoilers contained herein**
(And yes, I reference Rick and Morty despite any controversy surrounding the show)
I recently discussed with someone how purpose and meaning may benefit people throughout the lifespan. During the talk, nihilism, relativism, and fatalism were addressed. Perhaps the product of that exchange may serve others, as well.
As an example, purpose and meaning may serve as:
· An antidote to suffering associated with nihilism
· A counterbalance to the moral decay of relativism
· The antithesis of chaos regarding fatalism.
Throughout this blog entry, I’ll crudely define concepts which may require much broader examination than I’m prepared to elucidate herein. For the philosophers, theorists, intellectuals, and academics in the crowd, forgive my naïveté.
I am but a fallible human being with a modest blog, in which I function from an ignorance-informed perspective. As such, my framing of the following concepts will be far less than perfect.
What are Purpose and Meaning?
Haidt states, “Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its telos—its purpose, end or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing.” In this way, the purpose of a thing is what the thing is intended to do.
The primary purpose of a window for a home is arguably for “the admission of light and air.” Still, it could function as a lookout point, decoration, or otherwise.
Understanding what a window does informs one very little about how significant or valuable a window is. This is where meaning is worthy of consideration.
Exploring perhaps the single most contemplated question concerning meaning—what is the meaning of life?—Krishnamurti stated, “What is it all about? What do we live for?” and adds that meaning is that which “gives a significance to life.”
On a smaller scale, we can assess what the meaning of a window is. Is a broken window as meaningful as an intact one? If the primary function of a window is to admit light or air, a broken window may serve its purpose.
Yet, considering how temperatures in my local area have been within the 100° Fahrenheit range this week, a broken window isn’t as valuable to me, because cool air escapes my home while hot air enters. It is therefore understood that while purpose may be somewhat objective to assess, meaning is largely subjective.
I think of an episode of Rick and Morty in which Rick constructs a robot that becomes sentient. When the robot asks, “What is my purpose,” and Rick replies, “You pass butter,” the robot dips its head in defeat. The robot realized that while it had a purpose to fulfil, it derived no meaning from the task.
Using this understanding, I simplify the matter as purpose relating to what is useful. Meaning, subsequent to the occurrence of purpose, is the value placed on the outcome of purpose.
Do you agree with my framing of these terms? If you disagree, with what elements of my analysis do you take issue?
What are nihilism, relativism, and fatalism?
Nihilism is defined as “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.” Think of Philbert Amgitsecuder, who says, “Nothing matters and there is no right or wrong, because everything is meaningless.”
Throughout the Rick and Morty series, nihilism is probably the single most recurring of the elements discussed in this blog entry. As an example, consider the episode in which Morty tells his sister, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere; everybody’s going to die.”
Relativism is defined as “the thesis that all points of view are equally valid.” Think of Wilhelmina Annawitahwodi, who states, “Whether I punch a dolphin in the face or feed it fish, it doesn’t matter either way.”
When thinking of how Rick and Morty address relativism, I’m reminded of an episode in which Rick states, “Weddings are basically funerals with cake.” Be it celebrating life or mourning death, Rick sees little distinction between these events.
Fatalism is defined as “the propensity to believe that one’s destiny is externally determined,” and is also considered as “the view that human choice and action have no influence on future events, which will be as they will be whatever we think or do.”
When considering fatalism, think of Rupert Nacirema, who declares, “It doesn’t matter if I commit all the sins and crimes [Yes, all of them], because my fate was predetermined before I was born, and laws or rules don’t apply to me.”
Perhaps the most obvious example of fatalism I can think of from Rick and Morty is an episode in which Rick creates a micro-universe, essentially functioning as a deity-like figure over its residents. When an unnamed scientist in the third layer of that universe realizes that his entire existence wasn’t what he thought—and that he had no control over outcomes—he self-terminates.
What do you think of my framing of these concepts? Keeping in mind that complex topics like this may require more nuance than I’ve provided, what might you add as a matter of context?
What’s that you said about an antidote?
A number of people with whom I’ve worked over the years have expressed a melancholic mood when questioning, “Is this all there really is?” much as Rick’s robot experienced. This form of nihilistic perspective can play a role in mental health symptomology.
I’ve personally experienced fewer people who truly subscribed to relativistic and fatalistic views that also reported increased suffering as a result. Anecdotally, it seems as though nihilism is largely correlated with emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and suffering—though not always.
In a clinical setting, I generally find that these symptoms persist in the absence of purpose and meaning. Though it isn’t uncommon for an individual to maintain purpose without meaning, the latter element seemingly is the source for a significant level of self-disturbance for many people.
Think of Birdie von Trapenstein, who hates her job, but it pays the bills. While perhaps not her life’s purpose, the product of Birdie’s work is a means to an end. Still, Birdie is unfulfilled and may perceive this lack of meaning as representing no way out of her current rut.
From a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) standpoint, I would share with Birdie the Epictetian notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” It isn’t that she is stuck which bothers Birdie, it’s what she tells herself about being stuck that is the issue.
If you would like a more in-depth understanding about my approach to REBT, I invite you to review a blog entry I posted entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). In the post, I describe how we disturb ourselves.
For the sake of the current blog entry, I won’t address the specifics of REBT. What I think is important to note is that a perspective in which one declares everything as being meaningless may not serve a person well.
For the spiritual or religious reader, understanding about suffering, moral decay, and chaos may not be a foreign concept to you. Ecclesiastes 1 addresses the matter of meaninglessness. Likewise, the Brahma Upanishad addresses this topic through the story of Indra.
There are many other faith-based examples one may find. Still, there are some people with whom I interact who outright reject religiosity and spirituality. Is there hope for people who aren’t overtly religious?
Existentialists such as Viktor Frankl, who authored Man’s Search for Meaning, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, provide antidotes to suffering. Of course, some may debate whether or not these men were theistic.
Perhaps once can consider how atheists such as Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens approach the topic. For the religious readers, I invite you to challenge your discomfort when considering these perspectives.
Though he denies a grand purpose attributed to the life of all beings, Singer stated in an interview, “The choice that leads to more beings enjoying their lives and suffering less is the better choice,” noting that one can ascribe personal purpose in life and derive meaning from it.
Hitchens, in his typical provocateur style, once stated of his individual purpose that gave life meaning, “I can only answer for myself—what cheers me up,” as he comically added, “Crowing over the misery of others,” “Irony,” and he stated that sex “is amazing.”
As one individual summarized, “An actual nihilist could potentially be optimistic, enthusiastic, joyful and extroverted – but their reasons for doing so would be their own.” How might you discover purpose from which meaning may be derived and add value to your life?
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
I work closely with people by encouraging the discovery of purpose and attribution of meaning. If this sounds like something in which you would be interested, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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