Conflict and the search for meaning

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.

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7 Responses to “Conflict and the search for meaning”

  1. Pyotr Izutsu Says:

    Your position only makes sense in the context of a certain kind of individualism. That is, you have to believe that “meaning” comes through personal self-validation. While this may be one route to finding meaning, it is certainly not the only one. This particular kind of individualism is a very recent development, coming about mostly in 18th-19th century Europe. In many other parts of the world, the outlook is more communal. From this perspective, private gratification is impossible without the wider context of a community.

    You are also assuming meaning must be a clear cut case of “internal” or “external”, as if these categories were entirely separate from each other. I would suggest that outside of psychology textbooks, life is more complex. Meaning likely has both internal and external aspects. Inevitably, we each bring our own personal angle to broader struggles. You completely underestimate the personal motivations for which a person might decide to engage in armed resistance. Perhaps it’s easier for you to rationalize such decisions as the mechanical decision of unthinking “slaves”, but the truth is inevitably more complicated than that.

    In many cases that people fighting for a homeland aren’t fighting for “self-actualization”. They are fighting for survival, for a better life for themselves, for basic human rights. These struggles are not an abdication of “internal meaning”; on the contrary, they are an attempt to secure the necessities of life and certain rights which have elsewhere been described as “inalienable”. There is a powerful dignity in these struggles you completely overlook.

    You are essentially applying a bourgeois, WASP-ish framework of private “internal meaning” to third world struggles, and are essentially asking them to forsake their political ambitions for a purely”internal” search for meaning. A cynical commenter might question your motivations for doing so, since this essentially serves the interests of the hegemonic powers resistance movements are fighting against.

  2. menso Says:

    I should state that I feel strong sympathy for any separatists who feel denied of their human rights, and none for their oppressors. Anyone who wants their own state should have it. What I am attacking is the collectivist notions that we should find meaning in what others want us to do.

    Besides, we are not just talking about survival of individual. We are talking about sacrificing the individual for the sake of ideals like nation and race. Separatists and counter-separatists alike give up their individuality and with it, their liberty. I would probably take up arms against an oppressor who kills innocent people because of their race and I thought my friends and family would be next. But the elites are not the ones who pull the trigger. It was the unquestioning soldiers following an elusive ideal of some kind, given them by the elites. They are all suffering because of collectivist nonsense.

    And I would not call Viktor Frankl a bourgeois WASP but a doctor of great insight into the human condition. I am just applying his theory to the context of violent conflict.

  3. Pyotr Izutsu Says:

    Frankl isn’t a WASP but there’s something about your application and interpretation of his theory that strikes me as rather pro-establishment in character.

    There’s a vast difference between finding meaning “in what others want us to do” and finding meaning in a context that goes beyond the individual self. Even if I choose to sacrifice myself for others, I am still making a choice, and hence I am not sacrificing my “liberty”. Nationalist struggle and conformity are too very different things.

    In fact, I would argue that nationalist struggles represent precisely a nonconformist streak. If these people were really so willing to sacrifice their individuality and liberty as you claim, they would not be resisting the power structure in the first place. Many nationalist struggles exist because people are trying to preserve distinct a distinct culture, language, etc. against an oppressors that wants them to give up their unique particularities and “conform” to the geopolitical status quo. Armed resistance against oppression is precisely one way that people assert their adherence to an meaning that is internal to their culture, as opposed to being imposed externally by an oppressor or occupier.

    Your notion of “elites” strikes me as being rather confused. In the context of violent conflict, the “elites” are the colonizers, the oppressors. On the whole I would say you are trying to take a theory dealing with the micro-world of individuals and trying to apply it to the macro-world of cultures and nations. It also seems to me you are having difficulty because you are unwilling to acknowledge the meaning of causes beyond the individual.

    But maybe there are some things that are worth sacrificing one’s life for, and that an ultimate definition of liberty must also take into account liberty from one’s own narrow, selfish desires. Freedom means more than simply doing whatever we want. Unfortunately, the libertarian notion of freedom you subscribe to does not acknowledge this, and ultimately only allows for the fulfillment of private desires.

  4. menso Says:

    Nationalistic struggle usually becomes your goal when everyone around you has already adopted it. The people who belong to the group perceiving itself as wronged are the ones who tell you you are being wronged. Resistance against oppressors is rarely a private struggle but something people do to join the rest of their group.

    The elites can be the oppressors but they are also the leaders of the oppressed. The leaders of oppressed groups are the ones who have the most to gain by filling others with hopes of freedom and using them to gain power. That is how it works.

    And I don’t know what the geopolitical status quo is but given the number of liberation movements in the world, I would not say the one you are talking about will last forever. I am not in favour of it either.

    I have not laid out my vision of freedom, and I am not a full scale libertarian, but I can see that you take a pretty narrow understanding of the libertarian view of freedom, so I suggest you keep reading.

  5. Pyotr Izutsu Says:

    Nationalistic struggle usually becomes your goal when everyone around you has already adopted it. The people who belong to the group perceiving itself as wronged are the ones who tell you you are being wronged.

    Not necessarily. Most people I know in resistance movements didn’t need to be told they were being wronged—they came to that conclusion themselves after having their property confiscated, their friends and family imprisoned, tortured or killed, and their language, culture, and history suppressed.

    Oppressed people don’t need to be told they are oppressed; they live the reality of it every day of their lives. There’s no need for them to take cues from “elites” when their present condition is staring them in the face.

    I can see that you take a pretty narrow understanding of the libertarian view of freedom, so I suggest you keep reading.

    Or, it could be the libertarian view of freedom is itself an extremely narrow idea of freedom.

  6. VandeNikhilam USA » Conflict and the search for meaning « The Menso Guide to War … Says:

    […] rest is here:  Conflict and the search for meaning « The Menso Guide to War … This entry is filed under Conflict. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS […]

  7. Toying with history is a dangerous game « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad […]


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