The Deconstructionists

Every once in a while, I come across an anxious or depressed client whose symptoms appear to be grounded in a particular belief system, which I will call deconstructionism. The deconstructionist sees the inherent flaws in everything and uses this awareness to reject everything as worthless. Religion, career, community, culture, relationships, politics, philosophy, morality, and even life itself… To the die-hard deconstructionist, it’s all crap. Nothing is real. Nothing matters or has purpose. There is no truth or meaning. Over time, such people come to exist in a nihilistic world, an existential and moral wasteland. It is little wonder that these people also become anxious or depressed.

Deconstructionists can be found in any population, since all it requires is a reason to question reality. Teenagers and young adults do this all the time, but so do other people who have their realities shaken. Imagine the doubts and questions that must accompany any great trauma, loss, or upheaval; and you will see how anyone can slip into deconstructionism under the right conditions.

What deconstructionists often fail to realize is that deconstructionism itself can also be deconstructed. It too is merely a belief system, a subjective reality, and as such, it can be dismantled. “There is no truth or meaning” becomes the one truth that many deconstructionists fail to deconstruct. If they did, they might discover an important distinction between the idea of “no truth or meaning” and “no absolute truth or meaning.”

Just because there may be no absolute (i.e. objective or universal) truth or meaning in the world, that doesn’t mean the world is devoid of all truth and meaning. It just means that truth and meaning aren’t fixed. I believe the world is overflowing with truth and meaning, but such things are subjective and very personal. In other words, we each get to choose what is true and meaningful to us.

If deconstructionists can make this leap of awareness, if they can deconstruct that last absolute truth, they might find themselves not in a world of oblivion and meaninglessness, but rather in a subjective world full of unformed potentials. To me, this is the ultimate insight and saving grace available to the deconstructionist. It is also the prize available to anyone who is willing to walk this path.

I would argue that deconstructionism is very valuable, as long as it is used as a tool for growth rather than an end in itself. As an end in itself, deconstructionism leads only to nihilism; but as a tool for growth, it has the potential to liberate us from beliefs that are absolute, rigid, ineffective, or toxic. However, due to its many potential pitfalls, the journey of deconstructionism should not be made impulsively or halfheartedly. I am reminded of a quote:

“Better never begin; once begun, better finish.” -Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior

Going only part-way on the journey of deconstructionism is no good. You end up in a dark place. In therapy, I often use a mountain range metaphor to illustrate the nature of such journeys. If you stand on the summit of a low mountain but see a higher summit off in the distance, one that you would like to reach, you need to understand that there are no shortcuts. The only way to reach another summit is to climb down the mountain you are on, hack your way through the briars and brambles of the valley, and then work your way up to that other peak. It is hard work, and there is little joy to be found in going only part way, because the view along the way is often worse than where you started. This is what happens to deconstructionists. They come to believe that the valley is the destination, and they abandon their journey at its most critical moment, just before the path forward (and upward) is revealed.

What does the rest of the journey look like? If deconstruction tears everything down, then the second half of the journey must involve building something from the rubble. This is the beginning of reconstruction and the climb to a new summit with a new belief system. Like deconstruction, reconstruction is a hard journey with many challenges and pitfalls. Most common is the tendency to take shortcuts by quickly adopting new external beliefs. Such behavior is unfortunate but also understandable. After all, ambiguity is uncomfortable, and it is hard to figure out what YOU believe. It is hard just to figure out who YOU are. In some ways, deconstruction is the easy part, especially once you get the knack of it. Reconstruction requires a whole different set of skills, and it starts with some questions that are simple but not easy:

  • What seems real or true to you?
  • What matters or has meaning to you?

Your answers to these questions establish a basic subjective framework, a foundation, on which your personal belief system can be built. However, there is a danger here, because it is difficult to know when you’ve done enough deconstruction to avoid accidentally building the same old beliefs in a slightly different form. In other words, if your answers to these questions still reflect old biases, you will probably end up right back where you started, on top of that same old summit you were trying to escape.

I like to think of deconstructionism/reconstructionism as a transitional belief system. It is something we can adopt to help us move from a given belief system to a chosen belief system, from one summit to another summit. As such, it represents a potentially important part of individuation and maturation. However, as I have demonstrated, there are several ways that this transition can get corrupted. If we start reconstructing before we’ve done enough deconstruction, we can end up right back on our old summit. If we take shortcuts during reconstruction, we can end up on someone else’s summit. And if we never reconstruct, we can end up lost in the valley, believing in nothing.

Another one of my favorite metaphors for illustrating the process of deconstruction and reconstruction involves LEGO building blocks. If I were to put you in a room and give you a collection of pre-assembled LEGO objects to play with (a car, a house, a boat, a spaceship, etc.), you might never notice that you were actually playing with blocks. You would simply see a bunch of colorful toys. This is what happens to us as children when we are given beliefs by family, friends, and culture. We receive a collection of pre-assembled ideas, and we use those ideas without really understanding them. This is a good thing, because as young children, we are not capable of inventing an entire belief system from scratch, just as we are not capable of building our own toys.

Over time, however, it is also good for us to learn to ask questions and think for ourselves, because critical thinking can reveal the true nature of the toys/beliefs we have been given and open the doorway to deconstructionism. Some people are taught to be critical thinkers, which is like having someone show you the blocks and how they fit together. Other people develop critical thinking through trauma and adversity, which is like having your toys break and discovering the component blocks for yourself.

Regardless of how we gain awareness, once we realize that our toys/beliefs can be taken apart, we discover a deeper reality. Instead of a car, a house, a boat, and a spaceship; we start to see the blocks. Instead of rigid beliefs, we start to see the experiences and influences that led to those beliefs. With persistence, we can learn how to disassemble all of our toys/beliefs, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble. For the dedicated deconstructionist, this is ultimate goal and stopping point; but as I have shown, there is another perspective. Where the deconstructionist sees only chaos and rubble, the reconstructionist sees a room full of blocks, and blocks can be used to build almost anything.

It doesn’t matter if what we build can be taken apart. That’s fine. What matters is that we get to build things for ourselves. We get to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble. We get to experiment. We get to figure out what we like and what works for us individually. One person’s creations are not worthless just because someone else could deconstruct them or build something different. That’s actually the beauty of it all. We each get to build, and nobody gets to claim that their creation is the right one, although many people will certainly try.

The journey of the deconstructionist doesn’t have to end in nihilism, anxiety, and depression. It can continue forward and upward along the path of the reconstructionist and into the infinite possibilities of a subjective world, a world of blocks.