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Meaning of life and mental health


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Manuel Casado

Full Professor emeritus of the School of Philosophy y Letras

Alarming news about mental health is reported daily in the media: anxiety, depression, suicide, anguish, eating disorders. Not infrequently, some of these disorders are accompanied by addictions: to games, substances, social networks, pornography... These disorders are sometimes attributed to different causes, associated with a lack of material and social well-being: after-effects of the covid pandemic and confinements, work stress, family problems, economic crisis...

The sense of health alarm seems obvious. But crises also have the virtue of prompting us to ask ourselves about the reasons that triggered or contributed to them. I think that much of the blame lies in the flagrant lack of a sense of living. A few years ago, British thinker Theodore Zeldin wrote that there have never been so many people who do not know "the purpose of their existence. The old beliefs are crumbling and threaten to leave us naked, unprotected, with no certainty staff to cling to". Today we observe an "atrophy of metaphysical feelings", manifested in the "perfect indifference towards the fundamental questions" of human existence, with the conclusion, on the part of many, that life is not worth living.

But "it is the prerogative and privilege of human beings not only to search for meaning in their lives, but even to ask themselves if there is such meaning. No other animal asks that question," wrote psychiatrist Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and who, based on that experience, published Man's Search for Meaning.

We live saturated with means, but lacking in ends. It is true that science and technology facilitate our lives and fill our homes with comforts. But in vain will we ask them how to fill the time we gain with the means they provide. To answer these questions, we must read philosophers and poets; contemplate works of art. And as believers, we must imbibe the life and message of Jesus Christ.

Anxious behavior often reveals a vital emptiness. St. Augustine, who had many passionate experiences, concluded that only God calms the anxieties of the human heart. It is true that there is an abundance of "positivist" advice in self-help books. They are evasive. Any resource that shies away from accepting reality, and getting along with it, is a false start. As Rosini writes, "life, even if we hate to accept it, is a tennis match in which it is never our turn to serve. Another always serves. The ball of reality arrives with its effect and its direction, which is what it is".

Today, the true revolutionaries are those who dare to ask themselves about the meaning of their existence, even though the dominant mentality has forbidden them to ask themselves this question, with the overwhelming offer of entertainment. But, if "the secret of existence consists in knowing what one lives for" (Dostoevsky), perhaps it is worthwhile to stop and think from time to time -and the imminent Holy Week is a good time- to try to find out. It is probably the best time employee. Also for our health.