Have you ever asked yourself what you were here for? If you have, did you conclude that it’s all worth it because you get to contribute to those you love? Or maybe you concluded it’s not worth it and you hate yourself and the world around you. Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. Welcome to the meaning crisis.
This post touches on the meaning crisis in the 21st Century. It explores why we want to simultaneously help and destroy the world.
When talking about the meaning crisis we must be open-minded
Any references towards political, ideological, religious, or philosophical views are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to be an endorsement or a dismissal of such ideas. We should be allowed to speak openly with an understanding heart, eager to learn different views, and understand new perspectives. In order to do this, we must draw upon multiple sources and remain open to synthesising seemingly contradictory or unrelated ideas. This requires the suspension of judgement and the grace to explore ideas without concluding on them.
Self-awareness, meaning, and the meaning crisis
Our self-awareness, suffering, and ability to articulate our experience has us searching for meaning in our lives. Everyone is searching. Because everyone’s dealing with an existential crisis, even if they don’t realise it.
Existential obscurity is magnified through our suffering and our self-awareness. We not only suffer but we are aware of our suffering and eventual death. Adding even further suffering and anguish in the search for meaning. This is referred to as the meaning crisis.
The meaning crisis is not exclusive to the 21st century, although, we face unique problems in the lapse of traditional beliefs. The search for a better world and control over our environment has manifest itself in many mythologies such as the search for the lost city of Atlantis for example.
Religious and political ideologies of all stripes are also a part of man’s search for meaning and purpose in life. One idea that stands out and has provided meaning for people’s lives is the concept of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not an external kingdom, nor is it a religion, rather, it is a kingdom of the heart that rules within our inner-self, allowing us to live out God’s purposes on earth. This idea is able to provide immense meaning and purpose for individuals, as well as providing a meaningful connection between the inner-self and the social and cultural world.
Unfortunately, the purity of this idea, along with many others like it, has been corrupted over time by various religions and groups. Indeed, many truths and archetypal conceptualisations, that get to the core of human existence, are misunderstood and perverted over time. Leaving us estranged from their meaning.
Ideology vs Nihilism
Extreme ideologies not only dissuade people from finding what’s good and helpful within a set of ideas, but they can manifest extremely destructive behaviours. One of the most prominent examples of destruction caused by extreme ideologies in our current world comes from radical Islamic terrorism. Any ideology that promotes the destruction of other human beings is not only terror but hell itself. Think about how much of a burden these added levels of suffering are for self-aware beings who know of their own fragility and existential pain. The sad thing is that these extremists are getting their source of meaning from creating hell on earth. This is the exact opposite of what we want to create in this world.
But let’s look at an alternative that abandons such ideologies and doesn’t seek meaning, existential nihilism. Someone with a nihilistic approach to life would not cling to some extreme ideology for meaning, rather, they’d find no meaning or purpose in the world. As a result, being nihilistic can also be very destructive. It can cause people to develop a hatred of the external world. Allowing a deep-seated resentment to grow within a person until they experience absolute hell inside themselves. It’s only a matter of time until the chaos inside such individuals manifests in a destructive way. You can see this type of thing happen with people who have committed mass shootings.
Their thinking might go something like this, ‘I am in pain and I want to stop my pain so I might as well kill those causing me pain and then kill myself to end the pain, after all, it means nothing anyway’. I know that was a crude and basic example but I am trying to put you into the mindset of one of these killers so that you can understand the existential components of nihilism. I want you to be able to understand how a person with nihilistic beliefs could possibly think. Then hopefully you can see that the hell inside of them is what becomes hell on earth.
It seems to me that having an extreme commitment to an ideology or having no commitment to any type of meaning are both causes of destructive behaviours. Extreme ideologies or nihilistic beliefs don’t allow us to function optimally in the world. We must instead have a balanced worldview that provides us with meaning and that allows us to function in the world in such a way that we can minimise our suffering, and maybe even enjoy it.
All fires start with a flame
I want you to picture the biggest fire you have ever seen engulfing your entire city. Everyone is burning, screaming, and chaos has completely taken control.
Now take a step back and picture the fire when it had first engulfed your entire street. Take another step back to when the fire was only engulfing your house. Then take another step back to when it was starting in your room. Finally, picture yourself just as you light the match. Can you see how chaos can come from such a small place?
When did the terrorist and the mass shooter light the match? I’m guessing it was years before all hell let loose. One little decision at a time, building, growing, and getting heavier and heavier.
You see we all have the capability to become more rigid and extreme in our thinking. We all have the capability to slowly deteriorate into meaninglessness, bitterness, and hatred. We have to safeguard against it before it gets out of control.
Wired to help
So we know about why we might want to destroy the world, what about why we would want to help the world?
It has been hypothesised that humans display altruism because of our empathy. The empathy-altruism hypothesis postulates that we can have an empathetically driven motivation to help other people who are suffering. Among a range of other motivations, we are driven to alleviate another’s suffering as it alleviates our own. So you could say that we are empathetically wired to help each other. But we don’t always exhibit this behaviour and that’s where we require further investigation. That’s where, I believe, the meaning crisis plays a role.
Your personal meaning crisis
Dealing with the meaning crisis in our personal lives can be tough. Especially if you start thinking existentially every day. I don’t claim to have all the answers for finding meaning in your life, but here’s what I’ve discovered along my journey.
Life is suffering
Life’s default is not happiness, as many advertising agencies would have you believe. Rather, life is suffering. The common thing we all share is not that we are all happy but that we are all suffering together. We share a special bond, unified through our suffering.
I’ve discovered that the best thing to do is to voluntarily accept your suffering. Once you realise that your purpose is to suffer, that’s the only way you can experience joy in your suffering. Acceptance of your own suffering gives you meaning as you sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Mere acknowledgement towards your own suffering is not acceptance of your suffering. To accept your suffering you have to completely sacrifice yourself to living the truth. This means that all the suffering in the world is worth it. This also means all your suffering is full of meaning and purpose.
Focus creates order
In the midst of chaos, you have to be able to focus on what you can do and not on the things you have no control over. When you focus on what you can do you start to bring order back into a chaotic situation. But if you don’t pay special attention and focus on what you can do, your focus will be fixated on the chaos, and you’ll be paralysed by its destruction.
Practice quieting your mind and focusing on what you can do. Knowing that if you are stable in yourself, you have the best chance at overcoming chaos.
Value your health
The greatest way to alleviate suffering is to value your health. I know people who are unhealthy and their whole life can be taken over by physical pain. Life is so much harder when you are unhealthy. The level of suffering can become so high that it’s difficult to recover emotionally.
Luckily, most of us are fortunate enough to have access to healthy foods and clean water. We live in an age of advanced medical care where most of us can live to around 80 years old. But we can ruin our good fortune by overlooking the importance that health plays in our lives. Most of the top causes of death (heart attacks, strokes, cancers, etc) are largely preventable by looking after your own health through diet and exercise. When you value your health it’s not just death you are preventing, but the years of suffering that come before you die.
On the positive side, you not only prevent suffering but you have more energy and the vigour to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.
The self-awareness of our own existence forces us to answer the question, ‘Do I want to help or destroy the world?’
Once you’ve answered that, you’ve got some meaning for your life.