If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
(Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
We all have a drive to express ourselves in a meaningful way, to make the world a better place — to make a difference. Jewish thought teaches that everyone has a unique role to play, and that one should view the world as their own personal responsibility. The Talmud explains, a person is obligated to say, “the world was created for me,” which means the world is my responsibility.
One of the reasons why Kaddish, is said for a person who passes away is that there is something missing in the world without his or her unique contribution. Kaddish reminds and motivates the congregation to draw inspiration from the life of the deceased in order to fill that gap.
Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, proposed that the drive for meaning is mankind’s primary motivation. While in Auschwitz, he observed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed a greater propensity for survival. He expressed a similar sentiment to that held by Jewish thought. “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. He cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity.”
But when we don’t express our talents in a purposeful way, inner turmoil results; this can cause psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A story is told about Reb Zusha. One day, his students found him crying. “Why are you crying?” they asked. He answered, “When I die, God won’t ask me why weren’t you Abraham, Isaac , or Jacob, but I will be asked, why weren’t you Zusha?!”
Victor Frankl explained that without a sense of purpose, a person will feel an emptiness, an existential vacuum. He gives the example of someone who has free time on the weekend and experiences a void, as he becomes aware of the lack of content in his life. This experience is also common at birthdays and other life milestones. Midlife crises, a lack of fulfillment at work, and the empty nest syndrome can also be manifestations of the pain of a lack of purpose.
When the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung experienced an acute midlife crisis, it prompted him to develop theories which proposed that the passage through midlife is a spiritual/religious journey, and embodies a search for a deeper meaning, value, and purpose in life.
We are now going to look at how we express our drive for meaning, and how this alleviates psychological suffering.
Stage 1: Awareness
To begin, we need to gain awareness into our drive for meaning and what is holding us back from expressing it more deeply. Let’s look at a few common examples.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explained that people avoid facing the deeper issues of life, such as expressing themselves more meaningfully, by keeping themselves so busy that they never have the time to think about such things. Frankl described this phenomena as “an unheard cry for meaning,” wherein people mask their inner void by pursuing power, status, material success, and physical pleasure.
Laziness can also play a role in creating an inertia that prevents us from pursuing a more meaningful life. We may think, “Why should I bother to strive to contribute more?” As King Solomon explained, the lazy person invents many rationalizations. As he wrote in Proverbs, “The lazy man rationalizes, saying, ‘There is a lion on the road, a lion is on the highways,’ as an excuse not to travel to study from his teacher.”
Fear, worry, and a lack of self-confidence are other causes, which may have their roots in the person’s upbringing. A child who receives critical feedback and discouragement about his aspirations and abilities may then lack the confidence to pursue his dreams and goals later in life.
Aaron, a tax lawyer, had a loving family and was well-respected by his peers. At the age of forty, he started to
gamble and drink. After losing large sums of money, he
decided to enter therapy. Aaron discovered that although
he appeared to be externally happy, he was unfulfilled.
His unhappiness was rooted in the fact that he found his
work very boring and that he had never wanted to go into
law in the first place. As a child, he possessed a strong
sense of social justice and wanted to become a social
worker. But he was ridiculed by his parents who didn’t
consider it a sufficiently well-paid and prestigious job
for their son. As a result of this ridicule, Aaron developed
a terrible fear of doing things that would bring him
ridicule from others, and he ignored his desire to become
a social worker.
Once we have become aware of what is holding us back, we can
move on to the stage of control, where we look at how to overcome
Stage 2: Control
Taking time to introspect and to think about these issues is an
important way to move forward. Rabbinical thought recommend
setting aside daily and weekly times for soul searching and
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes that just as a businessman sets aside regular times to evaluate if his business is succeeding and how it can be improved, we too should set aside regular times to introspect and evaluate our own lives.
Here are two important questions that might be helpful to contemplate:
- What are your dreams, aspirations, and passions?
- In which way could you more fully express your talents and
Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l, was fond of asking people two other
questions to focus their attentions on addressing these issues.
“Are you eating to live or living to eat?” People would answer adamantly, “Eating to live!” He would then reply, “If you are eating to live, what you are living for?”
He would also ask, “Do you know what you are willing to die
for?” And then continue, “If you don’t know what you are willing
to die for, you haven’t begun to live, and if you do know, live