Is There a Crisis of Meaning?

Is there a crisis of meaning? You’ve heard the story – suicides, addiction, depression, tribalism.  Ben Shapiro said, “There is a god-shaped hole in the American heart and we are filling it with tribalism and partisanship and rage.”  Similarly, David Brooks is talking about the importance of community.

But “god” and community are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for filling that hole.  Consider that American youth faced an enormously consequential “crisis of meaning” in the 50s and 60s, at a time when there was plenty of god and community – maybe too much.

We’ve neglected some very simple, even common sense practices and principles that, in times of crisis like this, people have the opportunity to rediscover. One of the most egregious failures of our society is that young people generally aren’t expected to cultivate their own internal compass or belief system.  So on the one hand, they aren’t deriving meaning from god or community like the pundits say they should, but then they also aren’t told to find meaning for themselves.

We are so quick to put things in the “good” and “bad” box which greatly limits our thinking.  “Trump voters are racist”, “Democrats are the greatest threat to the country”, etc. What people, especially young people, need to hear and internalize is, whatever is true for you according to your own nature after cultivating who you are – that is fundamentally good. The solution to our problems is the integrity of the individual.  Emerson said, “but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil. No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

We are lucky that so many societies are so free today.  This means there isn’t an overall structure or value system forced upon us as there was in the 1950s US or that there is in totalitarian China today.  But the solution is absolutely not to find one and force it on people. The solution is not to be more like the U.S. in 1950s or like totalitarian China today.

With all of this freedom, we have the opportunity to figure things out for ourselves.  The so-called crisis of meaning is a blessing in disguise.  We’ve blown an opportunity so we’re facing painful consequences. To find meaning we have to decide for ourselves what ideas resonate and figure out who we are.  We need to figure out for ourselves what’s worth living for. In these more controlled societies like 1950s US, that’s not an acceptable option at all.

Once we figure out what we really believe in, we then religiously follow that belief system.  Then, we experience what some people have no problem calling “god”. But what we call it is irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be named.

If we don’t accept this task, there will be destruction and misery.  Buckminster Fuller said, “Integrity of the individual is what we’re being judged for and if we are not passing that examination…we’ll blow ourselves up. It will be all over. I think it’s all the difference in the world.”

But to actually have a belief system that is worth following religiously, you need to seek experience that helps you develop it.  And when that experience brings pain and temporary unhappiness, you figure out what that teaches you about who you are and what you need to do next.  And in all of that, there is one thing guiding you which is simply the desire for self-discovery. This is a process that never ends. Little by little you internalize that this alone is worth living for.

It’s all really simple. We don’t need this or that piece of esoteric knowledge, webinar, psychedelic drug, whatever.  Many things can help. But at the end of the day, if your way of thinking doesn’t shift in these small ways, you won’t progress.  And for as long as we think that it all depends on something outside of us, our people will struggle to escape this “crisis of meaning”.  We just need to shift our thinking in this small but profound way.

One practical way of realizing that shift in thinking is journaling every single day in the morning, reminding yourself of whatever it is you feel that you need to discovering your own belief system. If 50% of the population did that, do you think we’d be saying anything about a crisis of meaning?