Klimt Music 2Even the iconic, undisputed geniuses like Beethoven or Tolstoy battled with the perceived meaninglessness of life. Crises of meaning are devastating yet rich in possibilities for self-discovery and growth. How do people recover the lost sense of happiness and purpose? Why do even the extraordinarily gifted, highly accomplished individuals struggle with the loss of meaning? What allows people to overcome the feeling of futility of their existence?

These are the key questions for the last unit, Recovery of Meaning: Crises and Hopes. One of the world’s most intriguing parables of spiritual quest is the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. After having encountered an aging person, a sick person, and a corpse, prince Siddhartha abandoned a life of luxury to search for the meaning of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching about the origin and cessation of suffering (“The Four Noble Truths”) reveals a path to spiritual recovery grounded in compassion, ethical conduct, and mental discipline. 

Ancient teachings and contemporary psychological studies alike present crises of meaning as definitive moments in our lives—potent experiences which deepen self-awareness. Depending on the attitude we take, a serious crisis may crush us or pave the way to a renewed sense of purpose and joyful existence. 

A crisis inevitably sheds new light on beliefs, values, and ideals we once took for granted. And so we return to our earlier discussions of hedonism, stoicism, altruism, humanism, and existentialism. We contrast the different paths to meaning, such as the spiritual and mythical (Tolstoy, Jung) and the secular and atheist (Camus, Sartre) and revisit the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the Buddhist Scriptures, and Tao Te Ching.

In this unit, students conduct Interviews recording and analyzing the stories of people who confronted crises of meaning. Together we read  Man’s Search for Meaning by influential psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. The book is a powerful reminder of the indestructibility of human spirit and of the time-honored antidotes to despair—love, creativity, camaraderie, sense of humor.  

Hermann Hesse’s masterpiece, Siddhartha, closes our journey, bringing together the major themes of the course. 

Selected Readings

  • The Bible: Authorized King James Version. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. (Ecclesiastes)
  • Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. Trans. Robert Alter. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
  • Barrett, William. Irrational Man. 2nd ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.
  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada. New York: Grove Press, 1974.
  • Buddhist Scriptures. Trans. Edward Conze. New York: Penguin Classics, 1959.
  • Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brian. New York: Vintage, 1991.
  • Epictetus. The Handbook. Trans. N. P. White. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.
  • Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
  • Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Trans. Hilda Rosner. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.
  • Jung, Carl Gustav. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Edited by Aniela Jaffé. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage Books, 1963. (Selected chapters)
  • Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching: An Illustrated Journey. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. London, UK: Frances LincolnLtd, 2009.
  • J-P. Sartre. The Wall. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. In The Wall and Other Stories. 3rd ed. New Directions, 1969.
  • Tolstoy, Leo.  A Confession. In A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Trans. Jane Kentish. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.
  • Yalom, Irvin. “Meaninglessness,” and “Meaninglessness and Psychotherapy.” In Existential Psychotherapy. New York: BasicBooks, 1980.