A Paradox of Being Human
By Bob Edelstein, LMFT, MFT
This blog was originally posted in Psychology Today on December 20, 2016
I’m an existential-humanistic psychotherapist. A main theme for many of my clients over the years has been why do we exist? Why does my life matter? After all, we live on a pale blue dot in a vast solar system on the far edge of a galaxy in a remote part of the universe. What’s the point? It’s all going to end anyway. Why focus on the here and now when it all seems so insignificant? Why bother getting close to someone, when at some point we all die. There is nothing permanent. Nothing is important. Therefore, why should I invest in life? Existential despair is the result of this way of being.
On the other hand, I’ve had clients who are pre-occupied with the details of their existence. Everything matters. There is no discrimination between what is important to focus on and what isn’t. They worry if they said or did the exact right thing. They focus on all of the details. Everything carries the same weight. Everything matters too much. Everything is important. Existential angst is the result of this way of being.
If we are so focused on the fact that we will die and so will our planet, we’ve lost the present moment. We are defining ourselves by our non-existence. We are discounting the fact that life happens in the present moment. We need to keep our earthly perspective. If we do, we can explore how we want to live our life in the time we have. We are able to experience the wonder and awe of being human in a finite existence.
On the other hand, if we worry about every detail in our life, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Our life is filled with anxiety. This is exhausting. We’ve lost sight of the wonder and awe that we exist on a planet, rotating around a magnificent sun in a huge solar system at the edge of a galaxy. We need to keep our cosmic perspective. If we do, we are able to discriminate between what truly matters and what truly doesn’t matter. We develop a sense of humor about life. We can relax and enjoy it more.
I believe both views are true – everything is important and nothing is important. Both views must be held simultaneously. This is one of the sublime paradoxes of being human. When we hold both contradictory views, we can embrace and engage with all of life.
Thus, if we struggle with the view that nothing matters, can we let ourselves move into what is important, whether it brings sadness or joy? Can we believe that life is worth investing in?
If we struggle with the view that everything matters too much, can we stay open to the possibility that some things aren’t as important as others? Can we make conscious choices about where to invest our energy?
Holding this paradox is quite a challenge. I believe both views need to be honored for the optimal, fulfilled, and actualized life. We need to experience that everything is important and nothing is important.
Yet, for the optimal, fulfilled, actualized life, we need to embrace the view that everything matters and everything doesn’t matter.