Why does existence exist? This is the first spiritual question we asked (in Part 2 of this series). The answer: because creation—the cosmos—is good, very good, and the correct response to it is joy. But there are two other spiritual questions we now need to consider. The first of these, to be discussed here in part 3, is extremely well known to anyone who has ever done a serious personal development course. Namely, what is the meaning (or sometimes the word “purpose” is used) of my life? There is the question, in its naked intensity!
There is an apocryphal story about the world-famous English philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had been appearing on television as an all-purpose-wisdom pundit and so was recognized by a London taxi driver whom Russell had hailed for a lift. In getting into the taxi, the driver simply asked, “What’s it all about, Bert?”
The story is very funny, not least in the overly familiar way the driver addressed Russell, but the important thing is that the question—what is the meaning of my life?—is not something reserved for academics and philosophers. All thoughtful people consider it at some time or other; in fact, it’s usually when the chips are down and life isn’t making sense.
Indeed, long ago, but post-World War II, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl observed, “More and more patients are crowding our clinics and consulting rooms complaining of an inner emptiness, a sense of total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives,” as Colin Wilson cites in his book “The Essential Colin Wilson.”
Wilson goes on to say, “I coined the term ‘nothingness neurosis’ to describe this state.”
“Man evolves through a sense of external meaning. When his sense of meaning is strong, he maintains a high level of will-drive and of general health. Without this sense of external meaning, he becomes the victim of subjective emotions, a kind of dream that tends to degenerate into a nightmare. His uncontrolled fantasies and worries turn into an octopus that strangles him.”
The Greatest Illness of All
But what does this strangulation look like? It looks like increased incidences of depression, anomie, and suicide, say Nathan Mascaro and David H. Rosen in their article “Existential Meaning’s Role in the Enhancement of Hope and Prevention of Depressive Symptoms.” Their research from the University of Texas gives the general flavor:
“A phenomenon that may parallel increased rates of depression and hopelessness is the loss of existential meaning, or existential neurosis, which could be considered the disorder of our age: Consider the demise of the idealism typically provided by religion, metaphysical philosophy, and other such activities that engage humans in vertical or transcendent cogitation, [the] dying out of the old-world activities of planting and harvesting that gave people concrete purpose as well as a deeper communion with nature, and the concurrent rise of materialism, reductionism, and nihilism.”
Virtually all the statistics that one could drum up in the United States and the UK—over the last 20 years or more—point to big increases in depression, suicide, and anomie. Anomie, according to the dictionary, refers to the “lack of the usual social or ethical standards in an individual or group.”
And what might one expect from those suffering from anomie? Right! An increase in selfish and/or criminal behaviors—all too evident, and all too around us.
American psychoanalyst James Hollis expressed it so well: “When we live without meaning, we suffer the greatest illness of all.”
In Seeking, We Find
And the truth is, there is no real reason for people to believe that life is meaningless, since there is so much evidence to the contrary; of course, keeping in mind, as English philosopher Aldous Huxley noted, that “Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.”
Leaving aside those, then, those with vested interests in promoting meaninglessness and nihilism, the genuine human searcher will find that “The universe does not inherently lack meaning. If it seems to do so, it is because we were created to provide this sense of meaning and are failing to do our job.” This is the belief of American philosopher Richard Smoley, who wrote that in his book “Inner Christianity.”
In other words, we need to try harder. We need to look, to seek, because as the old parable said, then we will find.
That we will find if we honestly seek, British scholar and novelist C.S. Lewis assures us: “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
This surely is a most brilliant observation. We can only say there is no meaning from a vantage point of meaning; meaninglessness cannot provide a structure or basis from which we can interrogate meaning.
Meaning Is Primary
Again, it is the great spiritual traditions that continually uphold this pivotal role of meaning. Even the pagans saw this. The whole point of Zeus’s fight with the Titans and afterward the Giants was to sustain the order—the meaning—of the cosmos. If Typhon had prevailed against Zeus, the universe would have slid into chaos, which is to say, meaninglessness.
Similarly, and more spectacularly, the opening of John’s Gospel testifies to the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word for “Word” here is “Logos,” which means “word” but also “meaning.” A paraphrase then might be: In the beginning was the meaning, and this meaning was with God, and this meaning was God!
Finally, the further equation between word and meaning is made when George Steiner, the distinguished Franco-American critic, often described as a polyglot and polymath, commented in his book “Real Presences” that “Any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.”
If we don’t like the word, God, then we can say Transcendental Reality—something bigger than we are, something or someone on whom all reality, the cosmos itself, depends. This, clearly, is the very opposite of meaninglessness and nihilism.
Therefore, it is no good shrugging one’s shoulders as if ignoring the question were the most sensible approach, as many people do—their justification being: We can’t know the meaning of our lives, so there’s no point in trying.
This can only lead, ultimately, to the problems we have outlined above, that “greatest illness of all.” No, we have to seek so that we might find; it’s the odyssey of our lives, in other words.
Why has the “Odyssey” by Homer become the archetypal text for Western humanity (and also relevant to the East as well)? The journey of Odysseus is all our journeys.
On the one hand, it’s the journey of the hero home—at long last after 20 years away, finding one’s home after all the distracting detours, monsters, and enchantments. And on the other, mythically, it is the reuniting of the male with the female, which can be read literally but also read as the body and mind at last in reunification with the soul, for Penelope is the anima to Odysseus’s animus.
The Beauty Behind Meaningfulness
We have to be heroes or heroines, we have to go on a journey, as staying where we are is a prescription for death and decay. In an article like this, which is necessarily brief, we have to understand (I mean really understand) one simple thing that holds true at all times. The famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it this way in his book “Myth and Meaning”: “It is, I think, absolutely impossible to conceive of meaning without order.”
Order is all around us, order is behind all languages, and order is the organizing principle of the cosmos. Human beings may disrupt this order through their own evil at a personal, local, regional, national, and even international level, but always the universe comes back into balance. This “order” is the same thing as the Logos that John’s Gospel mentions. But by framing it with the word “order,” there is an important and extra implication. Namely, order always produces beauty; indeed, it is beauty.
Scientists grow rapturous about the beauty of certain equations; artists wax lyrical about the beauty of sculpture, canvas, and much else besides; and the “heavens declare the handiwork of God,” as Psalm 19.1 proclaims.
Heck, the British are famous for their ability to form and endure long lines for services, any services! It may not be great art, but people functioning in an orderly way has its own beauty. Actively looking for beauty, and to increase the beauty in one’s own life, is a starting point for finding meaning.
Perhaps more obviously, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s words from his book “12 Rules for Life” might ring very true here: “In the West, we have been withdrawing from our tradition-, religion- and even nation-centered cultures, partly to decrease the danger of group conflict. But we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all.”
We have to go back to these three areas (tradition, religion, nation), rather than trying to be modern and progressive, regarding them as some form of obsolescence. Our mental health, not to mention our souls, actually depends on it.
In our fourth and final article in this series, we will tackle the last key spiritual question that all people who wish to lead a full, fulfilling and joyful life (which of course will never be conflict-free) must address.
Part 1, “Reviewing 2021 in the Month of Janus: Abandoning Purpose in Life for Our Feelings,” looks at how we tend to focus on our physical and emotional states rather than our spiritual one. Part 2, “The Importance of the Question: Why Do We Exist?” discusses that if we truly ponder this question, we realize that creation itself is self-evidently good.