Meaning and Mental Health

Last weekend, I had to suffer though one of those inane comedy-action-animated kid’s movies, for the sake of giving my child a reward I had promised her.  The movie is called “Megamind.”  While it was empty, silly and over-stimulating, upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the movie makes a powerful statement about our times.  The movie follows the lives of two aliens, sent as infants to earth.  One lands in the lap of luxury and opportunity and is raised by loving and encouraging parents.  This alien, who eventually takes on the name Metroman, is super-buff, handsome and oozes charm.  The other alien, lands smack in the middle of prison, is raised by convicts, and develops an overgrown grudge against society, especially the privileged and adored Metroman.  This second alien takes on the name Megamind, an acknowledgement of his exceptionally large brain and considerable mental prowess, which he uses to produce diabolical and destructive gadgets.  The two aliens pursue a lifelong battle with each other, Metroman to protect his beloved city and Megamind to defeat his rival and wreck theatrical havoc, as part of the process. 

I will not bore you with the movie’s convoluted plot.  What is interesting, though, is how both characters have epic, exciting conflicts and adventures, but at the same time, live empty lives, devoid of any true meaning.  Metroman ends up faking his own death, because he is tired of the Superhero gig.  He lives as a hermit, composing terrible music, which entertains only himself.  Megamind, left without an arch foe, quickly conquers the city, but is then left aimless and bored, without a purpose.  He becomes so desperate, that he creates another good guy superhero, so he can have something to fight.  He goes on to battle with his creation, who is an ignorant, infantile and crass bore, and, at the movie’s climax, Megamind tells his new foe that the winner, in the battle of superheroes, is the one who fights with the most theatrical style.

Megamind eventually finds something beyond himself to fight for, the clichéic woman he loves. However, what is so painfully and sadly striking about this movie is how much intuitive sense it makes to those living in our times.  The movie’s protagonists are the reflection of a postmodern society, which has all it needs, in terms of financial resources, but is haunted by the question “What am I living for?”  Some people seek to soothe this existential emptiness by filling up their time with entertainments of various types—movies, video games, drugs, serial relationships, etc.  Such people seek the bigger and bigger thrill and are just like Megamind’s motto that the winner is the one who created the greatest theatrical event.  Other’s, like Megamind, try to create a cause to live for or fight against, but are frequently haunted by the question, “If I created it, is it really an important purpose for living or just another pastime.”

The brilliant and incisive psychiatrist Victor Frankl devoted his life work to this very issue, that is, man’s essential desire for a purpose in life.  Frankl, who survived the horrors of Auschwitz, said that his concentration camp experience succeeded in only deepening his conviction that man can maintain a sense of dignity and hope, in even the worst of circumstances, as long as his life is guided by a meaning, a higher purpose, that he is living for.  That meaning may take on different forms, but one fundamental characteristic is that it is something beyond oneself and greater than oneself.  For many of us the welfare of others provides a primary and lifelong meaning that sustains us and motivates us.  Frankl remained intellectually productive into his 90’s, when he published a book called Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.  In this book, he emphasizes that what makes us uniquely human is that, moment to moment, we have the responsibility to chose between following the dictates of our conscience or ignoring it.  And this conscience that speaks within us hints at the existence of a higher morality, that we did not create, but, on the contrary, to be fully human, we must serve.  Frankl views this higher morality as a real and vital force, which can ultimately connect us with our spiritual core and our spiritual origins.  Frankl also pointed to research findings that there was a positive association between feeling that one is living a meaningful life and mental health.  In my own clinical experience, I have repeatedly seen patients who have found a higher meaning to live for, and subsequently, their symptoms of mental illness started to improve.  Another splendid exposition of Frankl’s thought is in the worldwide bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning, this book being more accessible (requiring less knowledge of the field of psychology) than the book mentioned above.  However, I think one can best benefit from his point of view by reading both books (neither one is long).  Without such enriching perspectives, we having nothing left but over-stimulating, bad and boring theatre.      

Copyright © Michael Milgraum 2010.  All rights reserved.  

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