Are human beings primarily on a quest for power? Or do we mainly search for pleasure? If you look around at people, it looks a lot like we are power or pleasure-seeking beings. But what if these pursuits are misguided ditches? What if they are broken cisterns that can hold no water? I would argue that these are misguided quests that people fall into when they get disconnected from their sense of purpose in life. The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.
The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are essentially wired to seek meaning; everything else is just playing in the muck.
I’m not the first person to claim this. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl devoted much of his life to arguing this idea, making the case that a good deal of mental illness today stems from a spiritual condition, a void of meaning in our lives. This happens when we have grown disconnected from our spiritual and religious roots. It is cliche for people to go off to secular college and abandon religious teaching. They are taught in science class that human beings are mere oxidation machines or as Richard Dawkins puts it “DNA propagation machines.” But Frankl thinks the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical. If we do, it’s like the famous bed of Procrustes. Procrustes was a giant in Greek mythology who would take you into his house and put you on his bed. If you were too short, he would stretch you out to fit the bed. If you were too long, he would cut off your legs. The materialist view of the world does this to all of us, mainly by chopping out our souls. But if you think about it, even the concept of meaning cannot be explained on materialistic grounds. How can one bit of matter give meaning to another? It takes a mind to have meaning, and mind like meaning cannot be reduced to the physical.
According to Frankl, the spiritual side of man can never be reduced to the physical.
Frankl believes that meaning has to come from outside of us. Therefore, we aren’t meant to seek happiness within ourselves. Happiness is more of a bi-product of finding meaning. The popular psychologist, Jordan Peterson, a disciple of Frankl, argues the same. Frankl points out that a personal source of meaning, such as the God of Judeo-Christianity, appears to be the best source of ultimate meaning. But in his form of therapy (logotherapy), he doesn’t insist that his patients accept theism (belief in God). Studies find that if people find any meaning outside themselves, it helps them. But as proponent of Christianity and a thinker, I would point out that if a view lacks intellectual integrity, it will be like the famous parable of Jesus about building one’s house on the sand. When the rain and the wind comes, if there is no solid foundation, the house will get blown down and wash away.
Studies find that if people find any kind of meaning outside themselves, it helps them.
I’ve always been sensitive to this quest for meaning for some reason. When I was a teenager, my parents tried to get me to read the gospels and take interest in religion, but I had little interest. I did, however, begin to develop this sense that life was meaningless apart from God. This struggle peeked with a spiritual experience with Jesus that reversed my course. It also gave me an instant understanding of where meaning comes from. It comes from a transcendent, personal God.
You see, if meaning only comes from our minds and has no transcendent reference point, then there actually is no meaning. We are stuck trying to scrawl our faint fairytales on the dry erase board of the universe, and each stroke disappears as soon as we write it. But if we can discover meaning that is really there, it can transform us. If you have ever struggled to find meaning in life, it may be because you have squelched the voice of meaning deep within you. Perhaps you have let other people convince you that life itself or many parts of life are meaningless. The only way out of the darkness is to expose yourself again to real meaning, even if that risks discovery by a meaning-maker. Just like many of the subjects in Frankl’s book, you may find that while you thought you were chasing meaning, meaning was really chasing you all along. “But with unhurried chase, and unperturbed pace” like Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. Meaning comes on with “deliberate speed and majestic instancy.” Hold tight. Meaning is coming.