existential vacuum

In deep thoughts, inspiration, learning, motivation by Jay Clouse

I just spent a week on an island in Belize, and actually allowed myself to spend it completely relaxing. And, I even read a book! I know — what a novel idea (pun intended) — but I rarely give myself the time to actually read a book vs. listen to an audio book.

So what book did I choose to read while lounging on the beach? Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

If you’re familiar with the book, you’re probably thinking that it’s kind of a heavy book for that setting (you’re right). If you’re not familiar, Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was imprisoned in four Nazi concentration camps during WWII.

He was lucky to escape (only 1 in 28 prisoners survived, statistically speaking) and wrote several books afterwards, including Man’s Search for Meaning, which has also been titled A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp and Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.

In this book, Frankl speaks about a couple key discoveries:

  1. The “meaning” of life is dependent on the meaning an individual assigns to his or her own life. Asking someone what the “ultimate meaning of life” is would be asking a chess master what the best move on the board is — it’s highly dependent on the individual, the time in space, and the situation.
  2. Meaning can be assigned by an individual in any circumstance, even that of suffering as he found in the concentration camps.

It’s a fantastic book and I think you should read the whole thing — and be sure to pick up a copy with the additional explanation of logotherapy, Frankl’s method of psychotherapy.

One excerpt I wanted to share with you stuck out to me in particular. As I was reading this book and reflecting on the meaning I’ve prescribed to my own life, I felt the pull of both of these traps play out in real time (emphasis is mine).

The Existential Vacuum

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century. This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss in which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices…

No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism)…

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress. And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker…

Moreover, there are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to [find] meanings vicariously compensated for by a will to [find] power, including the most primitive form of the will to [find] power, the will to [have] money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to [find] meaning is taken by the will to [find] pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

I’ve definitely felt the existential vacuum, and have often filled it with work. Sometimes, it was frivolous work that just allowed me to not be alone with myself, and other times it’s been work I’m genuinely excited about and find meaning in.

Since being out on my own, it’s almost always been the latter. I’ve found a lot of personal meaning in building a life of my own design and helping others to do the same.

Of all the people I meet and speak with, my clients seem to experience the existential vacuum the least. Which makes sense — I gravitate towards and serve those who are creating — almost out of compulsion (which is one of the three methods Frankl lays out for finding meaning).

It was a great reminder of the beautiful opportunity we each have in our lives to find meaning for ourselves and to serve others. And I’m excited to have taken the opportunity to step back and renew my excitement for that opportunity.

PS: If this sounds like you, you may want to consider joining the Unreal Collective Accelerator. We just finished up the most recent cohort (our biggest ever!), and the next won’t start until early Feburary. But the waitlist is open now, and those on the waitlist have first chance to join.


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