Friday, May 6, 2016

Man’s Search for Meaning

The modern world’s problem is that life is about less and less. Many, many people in the West have no sense of urgency, of any holy values that are worth any sort of sacrifice or deprivation. They serve no higher goals than comfort and self-preservation.

Perhaps the main cause of this—and perhaps an effect as well—is that the birthrate is falling in America and Europe, and families are unwinding. What’s left? If you’re lucky enough to live in a world city, you can live a mild life decorated with Hamilton lyrics, casual sex, expensive pints of beer, and savagely clever tweeting. Or perhaps you’ll manage a Denny’s in a ticky-tacky suburb, watch Avengers movies when they come out, and drive an hour to New Haven to see Taylor Swift when she’s in town.

But this leaves some cold and frustrated. Men and women must have meaning, they say. Life as it’s given to us is gray and pointless, and no one knows what his orders are. No more does the world reveal our task to us. The stars no longer decide our fate, but glide dumbly overhead, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson says nice things about them now and then. Pleasure and self-gratification, the obvious refuges, are flashes in the pan.

If life is so meaningless, the solution must be—to find meaning. But that’s a wild-goose chase. Not because the proposition ‘there is meaning to be had’ is false. It is not true either. It is nonsense. We are tempted to say: here is life, and there is the meaning that it can have. Life is empty without meaning. So meaning must be found for life, like a husband for a bride.

But meaning doesn’t really amount to anything at all. At least, there is no such thing as meaning in general. The meaning of a person’s life, if it exists, is specific. Perhaps it is your love of God that stirs you, or France, or your family, or Christ. So we should talk about these things, because they are things that human beings can really love. No one will die for the sake of the empty concept ‘meaning.’ No one will find it either, no matter how many mass-market books of pop-philosophy try to convince us otherwise.


Now, I think that modern life is as lost and blind as the next guy. But what it lacks is not ‘meaning’. That would imply that we know what has been lost, and that we can take steps to get it back. Precisely the problem is that for a person without a home, the lack in his life cannot be expressed clearly. A modern person is lost at sea, but because he comes from nowhere in particular, he has no green England to crawl onto. Even if he does find an island, it’s not his own: it’s inhabited by seabirds and cannibals.

It is one thing to say: ‘Jews are suffering because they have forgotten the Torah.’ Or: ‘Europe is sick because the people have forgotten God.’ Or: ‘Americans are doomed because the spirit of democracy is no longer alive in their minds.’ These are all specific diagnoses that have their place from time to time. Sometimes they can even be successful in summoning a people back to its homeland, whether spiritual or literal.

But a cry for ‘meaning’, tout court, is languid, wishy-washy, and useless for actually getting you what you need. It expresses a real desire, but it is misguided. “I’m going to try Buddhism,” said a woman behind me in line to her friend, as she bought a tabloid magazine and a frozen pizza. “I think, you know, I need more spirituality in my life.” Karen Armstrong writes books that express essentially the same thought in three hundred pages.

Now, a meaningful life is something you have from birth. It is not a thing you can acquire: it is more like a home and a family that you belong to. The ‘search for meaning’ is usually a psychological expression of homelessness, not a coherent desire for improvement in one’s life. That does not mean that the expression should not be taken seriously. We really do suffer from homelessness more than our ancestors did. But we should not think that we are any closer to a solution by expressing the platitude that past generations possessed some universal ‘meaning’ that we do not.

You either live a life that makes sense, and inhabit a small world that you call home, or you do not. This is decided for you before you are born, just like it is decided whether you are German or Bangladeshi, free or miserably oppressed, a human being or a hagfish. This applies to communities as well: a group of people can be born into a life whose sacred demands are obvious to them, like Shakers in New York or Muslims in the eighth century. Or, as in much of the modern West, a generation of babies can be born to cities of the plain, with no master but their stomachs. A meaningful life is something that enfolds you. It is not something that you can win for yourself by setting your sights on the target meaning.

A related line of thought: much of modern religion is based on the trumpeted value of ‘ritual.’ Or perhaps ‘tradition’. In fact, you will be lucky to escape a Jewish or neo-Catholic service without hearing one of those words. Organized atheists, catching onto the fashion, have designed religious services to make up for their perceived lack of a community or communal rites, complete with set texts to be sung tunelessly by the congregation.

But unless the need for specific rites is felt from within, they will probably feel pointless. A human mind can be convinced that ritual is really important for, I don’t know, keeping the community together, or making time orderly, or something. But then when it comes time to doing rituals because of how important you know they are, everyone ends up feeling childish and bored. And it’s even worse to treat tradition or ritual as an end in itself. That is a frighteningly nihilist attitude. No: tradition should be neither a means nor an end. If it exists, then it simply exists as a living part of people’s lives.

My home synagogue is one of the most traditional places in the world. You can tell this because no one ever utters the word ‘tradition’ there: they just do what needs to be done. There are songs for Saturday morning and songs for Friday night. The scrolls are wrapped in colored cloth for festivals, red for the Sabbath, white for the High Holidays, and black for the ninth of Ab. There are places you may walk and places where you may not. It’s all in Hebrew, and the music is Baroque. On holidays, the high-born Kohanim take off their shoes, wash their hands, cover their faces, and bless the congregation. But none of this ritual is fetishized for its own sake: that would be reactionary and grotesque. It simply is, because it has to be that way, and it is good.

Most synagogues in the diaspora, especially if they’re non-Orthodox, go on for hours about the need for tradition and connection to our ancestors. And sure enough, they sing Kol Nidré on Yom Kippur because it’s a tradition. But for all that, synagogues are generally boring and sentimental places.

I don’t condemn people who want tradition for its own sake: they think it will give them a rope to hold on to in a dark cavern. But they usually end up worshipping nostalgic emotion. I’m thinking now about this horrible song, which tells you far more about the Americans who made it than it does about the old shtetl:

Now, attachment to tradition for its own sake is grotesque, in much the same way as emotion for its own sake (the essence of camp) is. Chasing ‘meaning’ for its own sake is worst of all. It means enslaving the noblest longings of the human soul—for justice, love, and belonging—to a cheap, moralizing emotionalism. The usual spoils of the quest are nothing more than a spinetingle, which is, admittedly, a pleasant animal sensation.

So: there is a problem, which is that no one in the Western world knows what to do. This is because the old homes of humanity have thrown us out, and we are anxious, lonely, and upset. But our wandering will never be ended by ‘discovering meaning’; still less by chaining ourselves to what we think our ancestors’ rites were in the hope of finding their happiness too.

1 comment:

Madeleine Saidenberg said...

What about a career? I wonder if that has overtaken the family or the temple as the place where responsibilities and rituals (get up, go to an office or a desk or a workplace, move up through the ranks, invest your time) beget meaning?