The background

The givens of existence

Irvin Yalom suggested that there are four ‘givens of existence’ with which we must reconcile ourselves. In his words he describes these givens as ‘certain ultimate concerns, certain intrinsic properties that are a part, and an inescapable part, of the human being’s existence in the world.’

But what relevance do these givens have for our search for meaning in life? Well, these givens are the stage on which our search is set. They provide the context to our life.

Yalom believed that these givens of existence lie deep in the subconscious of every human being. Though many of us may go through much of life untroubled by them, there may well be a point at which they surface. He talked about the sorts of events which could cause these concerns to surface as ‘border’ or ‘boundary’ situations. Examples he gives include ‘a confrontation with one’s own death, some major irreversible decision or the collapse of some fundamental meaning-providing schema.’

Of these givens, the first, and perhaps most obvious, is death. For Yalom, a core existential conflict is the tension between the awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to be.

Secondly, freedom and responsibility. Although generally thought of as a positive thing, freedom from an existential perspective refers to the complete lack of any external structure to life. He believed that there is a conflict between the groundlessness and randomness of our universe, and a wish for ground and structure. And linked to this is the immense responsibility that such freedom brings. According to Yalom, ‘The individual is responsible for – that is the author of – his or her own world, life design, choices and actions’.

The third ultimate concern is that of isolation. We enter this world alone, and we must leave it alone. Yalom thought that another existential conflict was between our innate awareness of our absolute isolation and our desire for continued contact with others and our need to be part of a larger whole.

And finally, meaninglessness. Man is, by design, a meaning-seeking creature. But Yalom believed that a fourth existential conflict arises for man because he has been thrown into a universe that has no meaning.

Yalom strongly believed that facing and accepting these givens of existence was an important part of dealing with existential anxiety. Failure to do so could mean continued anxiety as a result of a bubbling away of these givens at a subconscious level. And, though he acknowledged that ‘confrontation with the givens of existence is painful’, he believed that ultimately it is healing.

He thought that personal enlightenment could only result from tackling these concerns head on. His therapeutic approach is summed up when he quotes Thomas Hardy “If a way to the Better be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.”

And on the first three ‘givens’ I would agree. On the fourth, that of meaninglessness, I would redefine this as a struggle to find meaning. I do not believe that the universe is inherently meaningless. As I have said in The meaning of meaning post, I believe we should keep an open mind on the question of cosmic meaning, and in terms of personal meaning, I believe it is entirely possible to find it.

I do accept that meaninglessness is a major existential issue for many people but I do not believe that it is a given that one has to reconcile oneself with as one must with the other givens.

Finding meaning can be a challenge, as people throughout the course of human history will testify. But we cannot possibly know that the universe is meaningless for absolute certain. Perhaps it’s just that we don’t understand it yet.

4 thoughts on “The givens of existence

  1. Pingback: The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned As A Therapist. | Annie Wright Psychotherapy

  2. Let us note that not knowing if the Universe is meaningless–or not–is tantamount to the Universe being meaningless. That is, the problem is the same whether it is or it isn’t. This is a bit like the difference between Newtonian Physics and Quantum Physics. As a practical matter, on the ground in quotidian life, the struggle with meaninglessness is real enough whether conscious or unconscious. For some of us the universe is pure Being, without meaning; accepting this is a necessary part of gaining greater consciousness in my view. This accords with Yalom’s interpretation of a remark by the Buddha, by the way. When asked about the meaning of life, the Buddha is reputed to have replied “The question is not edifying. Immerse yourself in the river of life and let the question float away.”

  3. I am so thankful that God is so clearly the answer to all four givens. Yalom missed the boat only to drown in the sea of existential meaninglessness. He demonstrates that the answers to the human dilemma are not found in smarts, but in faith.

    “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
    Hebrews 11:6

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