You may not know it yet, but you are in the midst of a full-blown crisis. No, it’s not a health crisis, or an identity crisis, or a mid-life crisis (although you may be experiencing that as well). You are currently experiencing a meaning crisis. And when I say “you,” I mean all of us. And when I say “all of us,” I mean Western Civilisation for the last half century.
Scholars, philosophers, and academics have described The Meaning Crisis of our current age as a gradual erosion over the past 300 years of the beliefs and institutions that have given our society a sense of meaning. And it’s not good.
Psychologists have been telling us for decades that meaning is an essential ingredient in healthy human functioning; from Maslow to Jung to Viktor Frankl. But we don’t need a professional to tell us that. Anyone who has ever felt the cold sting of nihilism can tell you that to wake up in the face of an empty, purposeless existence is not a sustainable way of living.
And yet today, we hear about it all the time. From the Office for National Statistics, which says that rates of depression continue to rise. From mental health professionals, who tell us that people are so disillusioned by real life that they are literally addicted to video games. Probably from one of your friends or co-workers, who tells you that they are finding it increasingly difficult to stare down the long beige corridor of an office job, and the attempts to distract themselves with Netflix and constant travel are becoming less and less effective.
Where did the Meaning go? Who killed Meaning?
John Vervaeke, a professor of Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Eastern Religion at the University of Toronto, believes he has charted the slow death of Meaning. He has a 50-part online lecture series called “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.” In the first part of the series, he attempts to show exactly where our meaning came from, and where it has gone.
Meaning, says Vervaeke, comes from our ability to place ourselves within a framework of reference — to ourselves, to other people, and to the world — that lends an objective sense of importance in who we are and what we do. It is a “relevance realisation,” an ability to locate and identify with one’s true place in a dependable backdrop of the universe.
Many things used to do that. Organised religion, a duty-bound obligation to society, and a reliable inner sense-making compass allowed us to moor our boats, so to speak, on a sturdy dock. But those docks have become shaky and the ropes have frayed. Significant revolutions, such as the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, undermined the central authority of religion, and even caused us to cast doubt on our capacity to understand the “true” nature of our surroundings.
While these upheavals may have had incredible benefits for humankind, such as greater personal freedoms and increased social equality, they have wreaked havoc on our internal world.
Twentieth century responses were forthcoming but shallow. Jean-Paul Sartre told us, it doesn’t matter if the world is meaningless; we just have to create our own meaning. Victor Frankl told us the same in his famous essay on “Man’s Search for Meaning.” But we cannot be our own framework of relevance. If there is no solid ground upon which to stand, then we merely stand on nothing. That’s not called standing; it’s called falling.
The author and columnist David Brooks tells us to look at the calls to action of University commencement speeches, where successful people are meant to impart words of wisdom to their eager audiences. Instead of appeals to a higher sense of duty and morality, they tell graduates to “follow your passions” and to “look inside yourselves.” There are no more standards of the good life, he laments, because we have lost any real sense of what that looks like.
But a crisis brings opportunity. As Abraham Heschel once wrote, a question motivates us to ask for an answer, but a crisis motivates us to change ourselves.
How do we recapture a lost sense of meaning?
In a scholarly journal article published by Ximena Garcia-Rada et al., it is reported that satisfaction levels of relationships are greatly increased when a couple introduces symbolically meaningful rituals into their routines. When couples come together to celebrate a significant ritual, their relationship becomes defined by something that is inherently more meaningful than their own subjective pleasure.
We can borrow this lesson and apply it to life in general. When we engage in rituals, whose significance extends beyond our own lives, that gives us a greater sense of recurring rhythm and normalcy in an otherwise chaotic existence.
We find another helpful anecdote in the book “All Things Shining” by Hubert Dreyfuss. He points us to the deeply fulfilling craft of the wheelwright, the obsolete profession of making wagon wheels. To bend wood to make a perfect circle, the artisan must apply his or her skill towards a completely unique piece of wood. The knots and imperfections in the wood guide the wheelwright in how to fashion the wood. It is the externally imposed challenges of the piece of wood that make this craft particularly fulfilling.
In other words, we find meaning in areas not where we create our own guidelines to solve self-generated problems, but rather where we apply our creative abilities to address problems where the rules are given to us. The rules provide the framework, and our skill takes on meaning when applied within that framework.
In the larger sense, our lives must be defined and guided by rules that are greater than our own, so that when we address them with our unique talents and perspectives, it lends an objective meaning to our efforts. The more sound and all-encompassing the framework, the more meaning we derive from existing within it.
In a world of self-made problems and solutions, only those who place their significance within a context beyond themselves will have a hope of enduring this crisis by reclaiming true meaning.