Review: Searching for Meaning (James T. Webb)

I am prone to a winter funk, a recurring time of personal darkness starting with the holidays and extending until spring seems possible. This year was no exception. As I have other years, I reached for my full-spectrum light, just the right amount of human interaction, and a mix of escapist fiction and practical nonfiction. When struggling emotionally, I tend to reach for books on mindfulness and meditation.  I hold a special affection for Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, doled out in small parts to be read and reread as needed. While only an intermittent meditator, her wisdom steers my thoughts away from the existential muck while still giving advice remaining firmly rooted in the here and now. It works for me.

This year, I stumbled upon help from a different source: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, by James T. Webb, PhD. Webb, founder of SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and psychologist renowned for his work in gifted education. In Searching for Meaning, Webb identifies idealism as a central cause of existential depression, the sort of depression associated with a questioning of the purpose and meaning of one’s life. This, according to Webb, can happen to anyone after a loss or other jarring event but seems more spontaneous in gifted individuals, including children.

So how does idealism fit in? Idealism requires that one has a sense of what is right and good — what should be. What is ideal varies by culture and religion and is made up of, according to Webb, relative rather than universal truths. Ideals are also illusions, which Webb points out doesn’t make them bad but is essential to managing those ideals. They are simply structures we create based upon the where and when of our lives, with plenty of influence from those around us helping them come to be. Some idealists recognize this illusion of ideal, realizing that different people have different ideals, while other struggle to see that their way is not the proverbial highway for all.

Idealism, says Webb, is also borne out of dedication to fairness and equity, and gifted children and adults, keen observers of the world, seem quick to hold to these ideas early in life. Idealism paired with the observation that ideals often go unrealized can quickly lead to despair. Mismatch of belief and reality hurts. Add in a sense of powerlessness (“I can’t fix all the pain in the world”) and the intensity present in so many bright and gifted people,  and the train to existential angst has left the station. Webb spends two chapters exploring idealism and giftedness, time well spent, as accepting that these premises are linked is essential to the rest of his exploration.

If you weren’t experiencing existential depression before starting the book, Webb’s fourth chapter will bring to at least of taste of what it’s like. My routes to the blues are two-fold: perfectionistic thinking that reveals how often I and other fail to live up to ideals and a more episodic sense of existential aloneness. It was here I thanked Webb for managing the theism issue without apology to either side. As an agnostic raising atheists, I was grateful that religion wasn’t brought as an answer to the question of meaning. Religion wasn’t demeaned either, although those who hold their particular religion as a universal ideal and not just their chosen schema for managing life may be less than thrilled with this portion of the book.

If the book had stopped there, I’d have been fine. It was this connection between intelligence, idealism, perfectionism, and deep thinking about our place in the universe that helped me connect the dots of my recurring bouts of the blues. While light deprivation is a piece of my problem, most of my mood dumps occur when ideals don’t match reality. Holidays, where my ideal family together, clash with reality, shuffling children between houses. This mismatch and my attachment to a vision of the ideal family (one that isn’t divided by divorce) lead directly to the blues. This is the first domino to go, for the next step my ever-busy brain takes is to question our connections, which leads me to a profound sense of loneliness followed by concerns that my children will also feel alone in the world. And so the dominos fall.

Awareness of the first thought — that idealism (an illusion) crashing with reality causes pain — can stop the cascade. The part of me drawn to Buddhist thought finds comfort in even that simple revelation: I’m unhappy because my ideal doesn’t match reality. Is this the path out of that particular ideal-driven depression? Not entirely, but paired with letting the feeling be rather than chiding myself for it (If the ideal is NOT feeling depressed, not meeting that ideal is also…depressing) and thus perpetuating the cycle help. Knowing where the discomfort originates is somewhat comforting as well as informative.

Webb spends a good deal of the book describing just what existential depression is and what others have said about it. While interesting, those of us realizing just how our idealism has landed us in these funks will be wanting more practical assistance, and that arrives a few chapters later. Those looking for detailed instructions about what to do and how will be disappointed at his brevity here, but Webb’s list of healthy and less-healthy coping mechanisms should provide grist for many a mind mill. The healthy mechanism bring the reader beyond illusions and are practical: Humor, bibliotherapy, volunteerism, healthy relationships, mindfulness, and many more make this list. Webb recommends restraint with less-healthy methods: distraction, business, narcissism, apathy, substance use, and the like.  He acknowledges that even these less-than-ideal coping methods can have, in small amounts, mitigating effects on existential depression, alas at the price of maintaining illusion.

And that’s perhaps the essence of his message and advice. Webb isn’t against the illusion of idealism. He does encourage an awareness that ideals are illusions and promotes conscious choice if one continues to hold to those illusions. He also supports an active engagement in this imperfect world paired with an active search for personal meaning as antidotes to existential despair.

Searching for Meaning steps far away from the traditional self-help book, offering no simple solution for the pain of being human. Webb avoids the trite, explores deeply the connections between idealism, giftedness, and questions of meaning, and offers solutions that demand metacognition (thinking about thinking) and personal responsibility. This is a book about the gifted for the gifted, and it is written to the adult or older adolescent. (Younger readers may benefit from the chapters on coping mechanisms, but it’s heavier than many younger readers may find comfortable.) It’s certainly a tool I’ll add my box for my recurring wonderings about meaning and bouts of foot-stamping idealism that brings my mood south. It’s a fine complement to my current regime of  meditation,  Pema Chödrön, a full-spectrum light, and kind companions who accompany me on this shared journey of life.

For more on how I manage the challenges of existential despair:

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