Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Search for Meaning

Finding meaning in life is our most important quest. A purposeless existence is tantamount to extinction. The easiest way to find meaning in life is to procreate. Our children provide a purpose to our existence. Though once they develop into individualized entities, our meaning seems to fade away. Some people find meaning through their jobs or they rationalize their worth on the basis of their large bank balances. Temporarily, we can convince ourselves of our indispensability to society but eventually, our self-importance starts to fade. The products we make become obsolete, the lawsuits won are only history, the services we provide are soon forgotten and our bank balances lose their importance (acquiring money feels like an accomplishment, while the seductive power of having money easily fades). What is truly meaningful in life? What is our real purpose for living?

In Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he cites a study that showed that 89% of the people polled admitted that people need something to live for and 61% stated that there was someone or something they were willing to die for. Though these results are impressive, I wonder about the 11% who said they don’t need something to live for. What is the purpose of these people’s existence? As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In addition, is there really 39% of the population who wouldn’t die to preserve freedom? Is it better to be a slave to others than to fight for our liberty? Or are these people so afraid of death that this fear is more prevalent than risking their lives to secure our most precious values?

The people who have the easiest time finding meaning are people who are in professions that help other people survive. People who feed the poor in Africa or doctors who save lives (either physically or mentally) can rationalize their existence easier than people in other professions. However, helping people survive is not limited to certain occupations. When an entrepreneur starts a company, he or she is building a company that provides jobs. If the business fails (which happens 90% of the time), the entrepreneur loses faith that the enterprise had meaning. Yet, for a period of time, the new jobs ensured survival for a number of people. Without jobs, people cannot pay their rent, eat or pay bills. Without the dream of success, the entire organization would have been deprived of a scenario that provided meaning in their lives – even though this state of mind existed for only a short period of time.

Everything we need for survival depends on effort from a significant number of people. Even the shirt we wear on our backs started with an idea based on a prediction about the next trend in the market. A designer turns the idea into a drawing and a pattern maker provides the template for manufacturing (or the design is input on a computer). The design firm or wholesaler orders a sample and if accepted, production is ordered. A manufacturer then schedules production time and employs the necessary labor. The fabric, thread and buttons are made, purchased and delivered, materials are paid for, and a letter of credit is opened to pay for production. Seamstresses then turn the pattern into the garment, a quality control person ensures that the shirt meets specs, a factory worker packs the garment into a box, packing slips are produced, and the item is accounted for and invoiced. The box is then loaded on a truck and transported to a container at the dock. The container is loaded on a ship, financial people ensure that the item is accounted for, shipping is paid, insurance is secured, and the ship travels to its destination. The container clears customs and is unloaded. The garment is put on a truck, transported to a central warehouse where it is logged into the retailer’s computers (assuming a direct ship) and an invoice is received by the retailer. Before any of these actions occurred, the wholesaler had to approve the production sample and then the shirt is photographed, displayed in a catalog and samples are made. Salespeople schedule appointments, the shirt is sold to a retailer, and the item is advertised to the public. The retailer orders, tracks and accounts for the garment’s arrival to the store and the shirt is transported to the store’s stockroom and entered into inventory. The item is then unpacked, merchandisers stock the shelves, a salesperson sells the shirt, the cash register accounts for the sale and deducts the item from inventory. The retailer pays the invoice, the consumer’s money is transferred from a personal account or credit card company, the shirt ends up in someone’s closet and if charged, the customer receives a bill. Hundreds of people and at least 10 separate companies are involved to ensure that we have a shirt to wear. If we work on an assembly line, it is difficult to understand the value that we are creating for others but without us, the entire system comes to a halt.

Helping others survive can also be as simple as saying some kind words when someone feels insecure. Self-esteem keeps us psychologically sane and it is not always easy to develop internal security without some help from our friends and family. Without others in life, we can really be lonely and extreme loneliness can lead to self-destruction. Even the people who remain alone need to find purpose in something they contribute to this world. All of us contribute something, even if we don’t always recognize our contribution. Writers may be writing words that end up lost in a computer or they could be words that change someone’s life. Even if no one sees the words, they are an outlet for internal creativity and help connect writers to a universal power. Artists and musicians also feel connected to a higher power. We may not recognize the value of this connection but if we can enhance our personal growth through artistic and spiritual endeavors, we may be affecting others in ways that we don’t always understand. If we are all part of a unified entity, then each person’s internal growth enhances others’ spirituality and growth.

What if Monet had not found internal satisfaction in his art? What if he had stopped painting before a painting sold? What if he had been frustrated by the traditional art world’s criticism of the impressionist movement? If he did not have he courage of his convictions, the world would have been deprived of masterpieces that deeply move millions of people.

It is difficult to keep pursuing our dreams without understanding the value we provide. Some people’s brilliance goes unrecognized until after they are dead. Somehow, these people need to find meaning in something that does not appear to be appreciated by the general public. For example, the scientist who predicted the weather for Scott’s journey to the South Pole spent his whole life feeling that he had failed because Scott’s crew died due to unusually cold weather. He believed that they faced abnormal weather conditions, but without today’s sophisticated instruments, he didn’t know for sure. It turns out that his elementary predictions were only a few degrees off from typical weather in Antarctica. He never knew that the conditions faced by Scott happen only once out of every 15 years. He never knew the value of his scientific predictions. Consequently, he continually underestimated the value of his life’s work. Clockmaker John Harrison spent 40 years developing the chronometer, which is the instrument we use to measure longitude. He started the project in order to win a prize of 20,000 pounds from the British government’s Board of Longitude. He finally received the money three years before his death in 1776. He struggled for 40 years without the knowledge that he would ever succeed. He didn’t give up because he had confidence in himself and he believed that his life’s work had meaning.

Love clearly provides meaning to our lives. Loving another human being is the greatest gift for the recipient and the giver. People who feel that life has lost its purpose immediately feel fulfilled after finding love. Love is a magic “drug” that saves us from complacency. Everything seems to have a purpose when we are in love. This love can be obtained by helping a child or stranger in need -- or it can be expressed through the mystical connection we feel when we share time with a person who touches our hearts. We can never underestimate the value of love. Yet, love does not have to happen infrequently. It can be expressed every day of our lives. Intimacy is not only sexual; we can show our love to our neighbors, friends, nature, animals, the universe or ourselves.

The search for truth (either personal or interpersonal) can also provide meaning to our lives. Socrates believed that the search for truth was man’s greatest purpose in life and realizing the truth was man’s greatest achievement. Education through introspection, books, movies, documentaries, schooling and other people can help us find our way to the truth. The search for the truth moves us closer to God (or a higher power) and helps us to evolve emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Our own growth becomes our purpose in life and offers us the ultimate reward. The value and meaning of personal evolution can never be minimized. When we learn something new or change ourselves for the better, we are on the path toward metamorphosis. We provide ourselves with the opportunity to rise above our humanity. When we die we will not be asked how much money we made or what jobs we held. We will be asked only three questions, 1) Relative to who you were when you entered your life, have you evolved spiritually? 2) Did you help ease the suffering for others? 3) Did you help make life better for the people who knew you?” Life is actually very simple (even though we have the tendency to view it as being complicated); we either grow and evolve or we don’t. Isn’t our real purpose in life to positively affect others and to change ourselves? Why wouldn’t our spiritual progress be the underlying meaning of life? Isn’t that the reason why we came here in the first place? In Words of Light, Spiritual Wisdom of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hanson says, “ Trite as it may sound, purpose is essential to all labor. No mater what the financial reward, no matter what measure of prestige a career may promise, it must serve some higher goal. It must is some way have the potential of making the world a better place. Every individual must ask, quite simply: What was I put on this planet to do? When that question is answered then labor takes on an entirely new life.”

Some people define their purpose in life according to what others expect or in response to the demands or commands of others. The first scenario is the desire for conformity and the second example is a relinquishment to dictatorship or subservience. These people are defining their purpose in life relative to the demands of the external environment. While these individuals may feel that their lives have a purpose, they surely will not be happy. If the meaning of our existence is not determined by us, we will feel extreme frustration and resentment. It may be easier to let others dictate our lives, but it surely is not fulfilling.

Finding meaning is strongly correlated to a sense of belonging. Individuals need to feel that they belong to something greater than themselves. In the book, Words of Light, Spiritual Wisdom from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kenneth Hanson says, “People today often live their lives in the midst of urban congestion and yet feel isolated, lonely, and alienated, even from those closest to them…One Harvard psychiatrist writes pointedly about the need for a ‘feeling that you belong, that you’re part of something larger than yourself.’ Be it a family, a neighborhood, a classroom, or a deep friendship, it is vital for emotional health that we feel that we belong, that we are wanted, that we are ‘connected.’” In modern society, we have lost the sense of being connected to the environment in which we live. On the other hand, in ancient societies, communal groups worked together to achieve common goals and the family unit was unified and focused on ensuring its survival. The mental health problems of anxiety and depression that are rampant in modern society were almost unheard of in olden times. We see similar comparisons today. For example, the suicide rates for the Western modernized world are monumentally higher than suicide rates in impoverished nations. It seems clear that the negative emotional states that are generated from a lack of belonging can bring about our own extinction.

Many people state that they need to do something meaningful in life. Often these people have the desire to create something that will “live” longer than they will. In a sense, this is a form of procreation that is just not human. These people give birth to personal thoughts, emotions, visions, ideas or dreams. Books, music, art, films, founding companies or defining history are examples of these immortal creations. There is also the benefit of creating something that can be appreciated by people who do not have a direct connection to the “creator.” For example, it can be extremely rewarding to know that someone is emotionally touched by a work of art when it would have been impossible to affect this person’s life without creating the painting or sculpture. Providing happiness to strangers can be very powerful. These immortal creations are fulfilling because creators can share their personal emotions or spirituality with people they don’t know and may never meet. These creations form an intimate bond with individuals who were previously inaccessible.

In today’s society, the chance of finding boredom is extremely high. Some people appear to be rushing around without enough time in the day, but perhaps they are merely creating distractions to avoid boredom. Do we really need to attend all those meetings? Are the deadlines arbitrary? Individuals without enough time in the day have a difficult time understanding the hell of having too much time. Since these people have not found balance when they are young, they are in for a rude awakening in old age when finding things to do is the greatest challenge. Meaning does not find us; we find meaning. Watching television does not give us meaning – it only occupies our time so that we don’t feel bored. Boredom is highly correlated with lacking purpose and even people who are steadily employed can relate to this misery. Serving hamburgers all day can create an existential vacuum.

Unemployment psychosis is extremely dangerous. People who are used to having value in their lives are suddenly faced with a purposeless existence. The pain is exacerbated by rejections and self-worth suffers dramatically. In 2003, an association in Massachusetts conducted a survey and found that 50% of IT workers had been unable to find an interview in 12 months. These people were hanging on by a thread. Their days were spent searching the Internet or calling search firms with no success. Their nights were spent at networking events. How do you find meaning when no meaning exists? When I have interviewed people who are working, they state that they could easily fill up the hours in a day even without a job. If their friends are also unemployed, this is probably true but if they are alone, it can be a frustrating experience. Finding charity work could fill the absence in our lives but often unemployment causes paralysis and we usually feel that all our time should be spent looking for a job. We need to understand that fear is the factor that leads to the feeling of meaningless. We will all eventually work again; we just don’t know when and we don’t know how we will survive until that day comes. Hope is the panacea that will eventually save us.

Lack of meaning leads to temporary survival techniques. Frankl states that 90 percent of the alcoholics suffered from “an abysmal feeling of meaningless” and 100 percent of drug addicts believed that “things seemed meaningless.” Temporary euphoria makes us forget. Exercise and sex can accomplish the same end result. I can’t blame a person for grabbing onto anything that appears to appease the problem. Unfortunately, we just don’t realize that these temporary solutions make the problem worse. We don’t feel more meaningful after inebriation – we actually feel less valuable through a decline in self-worth. Sex with a stranger is empty and insecurities about being desirable in the long-term rise to the surface. We aren’t fooling anyone – especially ourselves. We know we are hiding from our ultimate cure. Why is the search for a long-term solution so difficult? The first problem is the addiction to temporary cures. We don’t want to experience the lack of euphoria in addition to our feelings of inferiority. Major suffering occurs when we give up something that provides pleasure. After we get through that particular form of suffering, we then have the bigger problem to solve. Some people stay in unpleasant circumstances because the fear of recovery is debilitating.

Frankl states that meaning can be found by 1) creating work or doing a deed, 2) experiencing something or encountering someone, or 3) the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. We control all of these solutions. The hardest thing to understand is the meaning of suffering. Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz because he was determined to stay alive to finish a manuscript he started. Whenever he felt a lack of purpose, he would start writing on scraps of paper. He found meaning in an environment of suffering. Suffering also provides us with the lesson of sacrifice. Learning what we can live without gives us appreciation for what we have. Through suffering, we grow. We just need to understand that suffering is temporary but the only way we will know its benefit is to survive its pain. Everything changes -- but if we give up, we will never know the end result.

In other words, suffering is actually a disguised blessing because of the challenge we face in surviving it. Scaling Mount Everest may be difficult but surviving suffering is a psychological crisis that has no parallel. Through suffering we learn and grow, and it offers more opportunities for spiritual evolution than any other challenge we will face in life. A friend related an interesting story to me that explained the gift of suffering. She recalled, “About 10 years ago, I was on a similar career path as a colleague of mine. At one point on this path, I decided to start my own company and my colleague took a job with an established company. Since the capital markets dried up and the economy went into a severe recession, I went from a position of financial security to a three-year struggle where I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills or rent, I had no health insurance and I barely had money for food. I finally understood true suffering and anxiety attacks became the norm. At the same time that I was extremely unfortunate, my colleague ended up being extremely lucky. He took a job with a company that had hit a trend and sales skyrocketed. He ended up making close to $1 million a year and with stock options would end up with at least $20 million after a few years work. In comparison, I initially felt that life was not particularly fair to me but then I realized that I had underestimated the value of my suffering. The experience gave me a chance to experience genuine psychological growth. On the other hand, my colleague would never have the chance to face the issues that I had faced during this three-year period. He would never understand the challenge of survival and he would never be provided with a similar opportunity for spiritual development. Though the suffering was extremely painful, it had meaning for me. It helped me to understand what is truly important in life, and it surely wasn’t money. Although I would never want anyone to experience the type of pain that I felt, I feel grateful for being able to stand so close to the edge of my existence. The experience will forever change me and I will never again be able to take anything for granted. Without being faced with the challenge of survival, I would not be who I am today. I am happy that my colleague will always live a comfortable life and I am happy for his success. Yet, at the same time, I feel a little sad that life has been so easy for him. His financial security may prevent him from seriously questioning his self-worth, his value to society, or the meaning of life. All of these questions are paramount to a person’s spiritual evolution. Maybe we just have different purposes in life. My path may be harder and may not be filled with external rewards but at least I will know that I can survive some of the toughest challenges in life. My self-importance will never be overrated and I will always be grateful for the smallest pleasures. The memory of the hell I experienced puts everything in perspective.”

Suicide is the ultimate escape from a life without meaning. Currently, the leading cause of premature death for men under 25 is suicide. If only these people could have survived long enough to know that life would eventually turn around. Happiness is right around the corner, but the hell of having time to suffer makes suicide victims give up hope. At concentration camps, a loss of hope led to death in 48 hours. People who commit suicide believe that death is better than a life of suffering. Yet, they are confused. They were not going to be exposed to a life of suffering – only a period of time when suffering monopolizes their daily existence. We cannot know how a movie ends if we turn it off after only 30 minutes. We cannot know the outcome of our suffering if we do not have the strength to survive it. We need to be able to look down the road. If we can survive this suffering, won’t we be proud of our internal strength? Wouldn’t it be exhilarating to know we can face the hardest challenges in life and survive? Running away does not solve problems. The problems just follow us until we are strong enough to deal with them (even though they may change form from time to time).

We also need to know that a lifeline can appear just when we have given up hope. A friend confessed that he seriously contemplated suicide during a period when he questioned his financial survival and felt that his life no longer had meaning. If something did not change quickly, he would be homeless at 50 (and this person was a graduate from Harvard Business School). He had planned to hang himself; he had bought the rope and was only three weeks away from committing the act. At the last minute, a business associate offered him a job, lent him money and gave him a company car. Even though his rescuer did not realize that he had just saved someone’s life, he did. If the business associate had not offered to help, my friend would not be alive today. It’s hard not to believe in a higher power when you hear these stories. Yet since my friend did not have faith in God, he also had no hope that a lifeline would magically appear. He did not have the peaceful feeling of certainty that the universe would protect him. I have seen the evidence of miracles many times in my life. No matter how bad things may get, a mystical solution often appears in the 11th hour. I’ve learned that we need to continue believing in miracles even when we have no evidence that a solution will appear out of thin air.

We are the only ones who can define our purpose in life and we need to understand that our purpose can change every day that we are alive. Tomorrow we could lose our jobs, which will redefine our purpose. We could also lose someone we love. At the same time, we could meet the person of our dreams at the end of the week. We could meet someone who changes our lives at the end of the month. We could find a new job in the next few months. It’s easy to believe that everything will be the same tomorrow, but this philosophy simply is not true. We can force a scenario of stagnation but then we are fighting the natural flow of life.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease is a cliché that can apply to our lives. We can let external circumstances control us and define our purpose or we can take control over our direction in life. To find meaning in life doesn’t have to be difficult; we just need to have faith, hope, and a belief in ourselves. We also need to continually connect to the people in our lives and to open our hearts to strangers. Someone once told me that he had enough friends so he wasn’t looking to develop relationships with anyone new. I felt sad for him. We can never know the potential impact of someone if we automatically shut people out of our lives. The search for meaning is a continual process of discovery and exploration. What is meaningful when we are young can be irrelevant when we are older. The search for meaning is an endless search that is affected by every person and every situation that we encounter every day of our lives.
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