Charles Williams was a British polymath combining considerable skills as a poet, novelist, theologian, and literary critic. He was also a valued member of the famed Inklings writing circle and a powerful influence on Narnia creator, C. S. Lewis. Williams’ most famous biographer is Alice Mary Hadfield who, during widely spaced periods in her life, wrote two perceptive critical biographies filled with useful insights concerning his life and work. One of her most revealing penetrations has a bearing on existentialism.
You must regard your own emotionally important ideas with the respect due to proper authority. To be authentic, you must live by these defining and guiding ideas. (Photo: public domain)
Is it enough to chase happiness in life? Numerous philosophers have argued that, for a deeply satisfying experience of life, something more is required, something founded on substantial personal growth, rather than a preference for a particular ephemeral feeling that manifests in a constant effort to spend a lot of time in the desired emotional state. Is it possible that the “pursuit of happiness,” so central to American, and indeed, much of contemporary Western values, may actually get in the way of attaining life’s greater riches?
A. N. Whitehead said learning is impossible without the desire to learn. This matters because all personal growth requires us to learn something. (Image: public domain)
I have already argued, in “Religious Conversion Can Block Self-Discovery,” that a desire for spiritual salvation in the religious sense can seriously impede a person’s growth process. Here I will make the case that thoughtlessly chasing happiness (in the materialistic sense of money, entertainment, possessions, and social status) has a similar hindering effect. It is worth noting that “the pursuit of happiness” in this mundane manner may be a crude version of the creative person’s sophisticated use of subtle moods or feeling tones to enhance both their creativity and their ability to remain productive.
Many people suffer a lack of meaning in their lives, especially in the prosperous countries where the hardships of surviving on a day-by-day basis are not pressing. Decent incomes and the modern social safety net provide leisure time and security while removing the need for the incessant life-sustaining, highly significant activity demanded by dire necessity. For most people in the developed nations, only casual pastimes, meaningless entertainments, or sporadic volunteer work (which someone else could do) remain to fill the void. This situation is regarded as wonderful, yet in reality, it exposes the comfortably well-off to the serious risks of boredom and lack of purpose. It is no accident that suicide and depression rates are high in wealthy nations.
A perceived lack of meaning in life may indicate a desire for a more heroic and glorious way of living. (Image: public domain)
I have been in psychotherapy for a very long time and have acquired a philosophical interest in some of the ideas behind the various psychological schools of thought. Inherent in them all is the concept of “liberating” the patient or client. I am sure no professional would ever put it this way, but psychologists are like the Allies storming ashore in Normandy to liberate Europe from the tyrant’s grip and restore democracy.
Psychotherapy seeks to liberate the sufferer from emotional pain thus restoring greater freedom of action. (Photo: Wikipedia)
No matter how one conceptualizes it, liberation implies some kind of oppressive situation from which the sufferer would like to be freed. Right away, we have a two-part scenario: the source of the oppression and the subject who suffers yet is not able (either from ignorance or incapacity) to do anything about the painful situation.
Finding out roughly what kind of person you truly are is the starting point of self-understanding. Many years ago, I discovered that troubled writers are the people who most resemble me – or whom I most resemble. I may also be like other kinds of disturbed people, but they remain largely invisible while published writers leave behind a readable and illuminating record of their emotional and psychological struggles. My discovery, and the fact that I too wrestle with writing books and stories, prompted over two decades of reading literary biographies.
Lowry suffered from acute anxiety and had his most productive periods in a secluded squatters camp in Dollarton, British Columbia. (Photo: public domain)
I suffer from manic-depressive illness. In the early nineties, I was newly diagnosed and recovering from a complete nervous breakdown. A few years earlier, realizing I had a terrible problem, but not knowing its true nature, I had taken refuge in a shack near a 10,000-acre tree farm that bordered the British Columbia wilderness. All told, I was to spend sixteen years there, many of them in combative cognitive-behaviour therapy.
Winter can be hard on hermit writers trying to live on the cheap. (Image: WPClipart)
Old ambitions of becoming a writer had resurfaced so, being essentially shipwrecked anyway, I decided to live off my savings and have a go at writing full-time. The 1990s proved chaotic and painful years for me, so much so that I was never able to finish anything, yet they “made” me as a writer. For years, I kept a diary of my struggles. Those of you who long to be a hermit – writers or otherwise – may romanticize such an existence, especially one lived in a beautiful semi-wilderness area teeming with wildlife, yet the lifestyle itself really is quite mundane. What matters is what you do with all the time. I invested mine in making Jung’s journey of individuation and learning how to write. These two immensely rewarding activities literally transformed my life.