We all seek meaning in life. Meaning has various sources, but we must be careful to find our meaning and not that of others. The search for meaning is at the center of the world’s conflicts.
A major source of meaning is hunting, as I discussed in my last post on human nature. Modern hunting takes many forms. Some people participate in unfulfilling hedonism such as sexual escapades or gathering possessions. Some engage in the struggles of their ancestors, seeking revenge for ancient injustices. Aside from hunting, we have other pursuits that seem larger than ourselves. Many people feel that religion is a great source of meaning, though it also leads to conflict when it is combined with the hunt. The guards in the concentration camps who believed in what they were doing had meaning in their lives.
A lack of meaning in one’s life can be dangerous to our health. Some people seek new meaning, but if one does not look for and pursue it all the time, one can become depressed, neurotic and suicidal. Viktor Frankl had meaning. He was writing his magnum opus while interned in concentration camps in the 1940s. His subject: man’s search for meaning.
Those reading this may know of Abraham Maslow and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He says that meaning, while important, is the small part of the pyramid. Frankl turns the pyramid on its head, saying that, without meaning, the other things can only take us so far. A mind with a purpose can carry its person through anything, but one without can shrivel and die. Frankl found that, in the concentration camp, the people who had given up their reason for living were the ones who died. He, on the other hand, would steal scraps of paper on which to write his life’s work, and he is certain that this is what kept his brain, and his body, alive through the most bitter conditions humans have known. And it is this struggle for one’s life’s meaning that is at the heart of the world’s darkest conflicts.
At some point in our lives, people offer us meaning. This meaning is comes in the form of nationalism, religion, ideology and so on. Sometimes we do what others are doing, which is conformism, and sometimes we do what others want or force us to do, or totalitarianism. But external meaning, that is, meaning offered by others, is false meaning. It acts like a drug: it feels good but lets you down because there is nothing there to satisfy you as an individual. Taking on someone else’s meaning leaves you with a feeling of emptiness.
What we need is striving for goals, tension between meaning to be fulfilled and the man who wants to fulfill it. Far from being an afterthought en route to food, work and a house, the search for meaning is the primary motivation in life. So the individual must seek his own, specific mission in life. We are filled with internal conflict, which is the hardest conflict to solve. Internal conflict is the tough questions in life: Am I happy? Do I make others happy? What is my purpose or mission? Why am I doing what I am doing? How can I make my life better? How can I make the world better? Internal conflict cannot be solved with guns and bombs. It cannot be delegated to another person, no matter how wise. Because it is so difficult to resolve our internal conflict, many people give up on it. They take on external meaning instead and pay with their lives.
Let us say I have a cause: liberation for my homeland. Where did I get that cause from? Everyone else who looks like me and talks like me is doing it. They are my family. I have been told that my whole life. And I have also been told that family is destiny, and family is the only source of meaning. These people are my family, so I must fight for them. I will dedicate my whole life to this cause. I have become a willing slave.
And there are millions of these slaves in the world. They are the suicide bombers, the unquestioning soldiers, the members of death squads, the monomaniacal liberationists and ideologues, who are no more than tools of their cause. We see this problem played out all over the world: nationalists in Palestine, Kosovo, Xinjiang, Chechnya, Tamil Eelam, Kashmir, Basque, Kurdistan, and everybody fighting against them, are engaged in existential struggles because they have accepted another’s meaning. Not only do such people cause some of the worst violence in the world, they are blind to the truth. When the enemy kills, it is a horrible act of war; when we kill, it is for our noble cause. They have chosen not to resolve their inner struggles and have accepted the false meaning of a cause they will never benefit from.
An alternative to being a footsoldier is to be a general. Similar in result to the pursuit of goals of one’s group is the pursuit of power for oneself. Power is very tempting. I think I have the answer, and power is what I need to put my solution into effect. (Frankl calls the pursuit of money the more “primitive” version of the pursuit of power.) The result of this temptation is (national or corporate) empire building. People will lie, steal, kill, or send others to die, anything in the scramble to the top of the ladder. When they are there, they do everything they can to hold on to power. Mass graves are testimony to this fact. And they build their empires with no concern for others. In other words, people who are not searching for a meaning that is greater than themselves will not only lead empty lives: they will lead destructive ones.
Relentlessly pursuing something is not realising your life’s meaning. Frankl says we should do three things to find meaning: achieve, experience and adopt the right attitude. Achieving means creating something that is good for the world, such as a book or a work of art. Experiencing is experiencing nature, culture, truth, beauty and love. Our attitude is how we react to suffering. Since suffering is an inevitable part of life, we must learn to handle it. Again, Frankl spent almost three years in a concentration camp. He says that when we are challenged by suffering, through a potentially fatal disease, for example, how we strive to turn tragedy into triumph, to regain hope, is part of our search for meaning.
People need to find meaning, and many people need help finding it. Education is one answer: schools that give opportunities to express oneself and find one’s passions give the best education. Education should not be about getting a job. If it is, the society it creates could break down into depression (internal conflict) or war (external conflict). At the same time, meaningful work is a great way to find meaning in life. It can lead us to preserve stability in society in order to keep our opportunities for meaning and give others the same chances. Lack of meaning is a major cause and symptom of the world’s most violent conflicts. Helping others to find meaning should be a high priority of those involved in conflict resolution.