A few weeks ago, on a plane home from Sydney, I was reading Irvin Yalom’s book, Existential Psychotherapy. Every now and again, I noticed the guy next to me glancing at the chapter title at the top of each page: Meaninglessness. I got the impression he was slightly worried about me, but I actually feel increasingly enlivened by the exploration of meaning and meaninglessness. Yalom and other existential thinkers consider meaninglessness to be one of life’s ultimate concerns. Yalom writes about the human dilemma in this way:
- The human being seems to require meaning. To live without meaning, goals, values, or ideals seems to provoke considerable distress…
- An existential position holds that the world is contingent – that is, everything that is could as well have been otherwise; that human beings constitute themselves, their world, and their situation within that world; that there exists no “meaning,” no grand design in the universe, no guidelines for living other than those the individual creates.
The problem, then, in most rudimentary form is,
How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?
If you’ve seen the cinematic masterpiece, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, you may recognise this question as one of its central themes. I won’t give any spoilers, but I do count myself among the many people lavishing praise on this film for the way it unflinchingly turns towards existential dilemmas with humour, creativity, grit and kindness.
Humour and bemusement are helpful in approaching existential terrain. Existential contemplation can be frightening and overwhelming. It can reveal the smallness and absurdity of our existence. The absurdity of painstakingly choosing an outfit to wear as we hurdle through space and amble ever closer to our impending death. From this zoomed out perspective, our choices and our infinitesimal human lives don’t matter. But then if we zoom into the microcosm of our personal lives, we can become paralysed by our need to make choices. On one hand, our choices are meaninglessness, and on the other hand we recognise that every choice we make negates another. In this way, potential realities live or die in accordance with our whims. As Satre says, we are ‘condemned to be free.’ (I don’t believe in free will and this complicates the existential discussion and may make me more aligned with absurdist philosophy. However, I still feel like it is an important thing to reckon with ‘freedom’ – and our potential to create new neural pathways, understand multiple perspectives and to widen our spectrum of available choices. Sometimes I think about this as a kind of partial free will – or a spectrum of freedom that increases the more we learn, unlearn, and loosen rigid cognitive and emotional patterns.)
Understandably, many people wish to abdicate the responsibility of our freedom. To give it to our mothers, fathers, partners, priests… Someone, anyone, tell me how to live. Give me the guidebook. Give me someone to follow, someone to blame if my choices culminate in a meaningless and misguided life.
Ideologies and Pre-packaged Meaning
A quagmire of ideologies and cognitive biases offer themselves up to cover over the void of meaninglessness and uncertainty. Although people can approach and engage with belief systems from different stages of development, I’m going to touch on the ways they can be used to grasp an illusory sense of certainty and thus decrease people’s tolerance of ambiguity and discourage personal reflection.
Religion is one way to avoid grappling with existential concerns. It provides people a pre-packaged sense of meaning. In fact, religions offer a two-for-one deal on meaning because they provide cosmic meaning as well as personal meaning. Cosmic meaning is the how and why of the universe, whereas personal meaning arises from comprehending our role within that universe. Ascertaining meaning in this twofold way is a deeply compelling proposition. To the extent that one believes in these narratives, they effectively become free from existential angst.
Religion also provides clear definitions of morality and immorality. Obviously, these moral frameworks are more or less progressive depending on one’s denomination or doctrine interpretation. Through religious texts and places of worship, religions provide meaning, morality, and belonging. Religion brazenly answers the existential questions: Why and how should I live?
Another belief system that claims to have a monopoly on the correct moral answers is the cancel culture-oriented left or what Clementine Morrigan and Jay Manicom refer to as ‘the nexus’. People within these circles, particularly on social media, adhere to specific moral codes and rules of engagement. Following the rules of engagement means posting about the right issues, at the right time and using the right language to do so. This task is approached with hypervigilance and something akin to religiosity. The hope is that if one abides by the dogma, they won’t themselves become the target of a cancel campaign. To me this sounds a lot like believing you won’t go to hell if you follow the bible. The hyper-woke online left pedals their version of absolute morality, but cancellations are inevitable as morality evolves. Nonetheless, the nexus steps in to provide another pre-packaged model of meaning and a doctrine to follow.
On a systems level, capitalism distracts us from pursuing questions of meaning. We are so consumed by the tasks of survival or accumulation, that we don’t have time to reflect. This kind of value capture is inevitable in a system centred around capital rather than human needs and potential. Capitalism answers the questions of why and how we should live in impoverished and repetitive ways – to the tune of work, consume, recover, repeat.
However, for many people, COVID-19 interrupted this rhythm. Patterns of work and consumption were disrupted through lockdowns, decreased income, and supply chain issues. This meant that many people had more time at home and potentially, more time to think. If you aren’t accustomed to it, large stretches of unstructured time can be confronting.
In different periods of my life, I’ve experienced the anxiety and overwhelm that can emerge from structurelessness. I remember realising why people have crises when they retire or even go on vacation. Open stretches of time invite contemplation. In quiet moments, existential questions come to the forefront:
What am I doing with my life?
Why am I alive?
Is my life worthwhile? Am I?
Will it matter when I die?
What is important? What is worth living for?
I think these kinds of questions hang around in the background of our mind like open tabs. They don’t go away. They take up psychic space while they wait for our attention. Ideologies and busyness can distract us for a while. As Peter Gomes writes in the preface to The Courage to Be:
We work hard and play hard not because we are more industrious or more playful than our ancestors but because we dare not stop lest in the stillness we are overwhelmed by the sound of our own anxieties and fears.
When the pandemic hit, the stillness had a chance to catch up with some of us. It was and still is an opportunity for our existential anxiety to make itself known. Even right now as I write this, I’m on day #6 of sitting alone in a room due to being COVID-positive. The stillness has found me again.
Consumers of Certainty
In our increasingly crisis-laden world, I understand the allure of ideologies. These belief systems package and sell certainty in what we have all come to know as ‘uncertain times.’ During the pandemic, the market for certainty has increased. People are willing to pay good money and to believe bizarre things for a little slice of certainty. This recognition has helped me make sense of the upsurge of acceptance in conspiracy theories during the pandemic – and even the new age to born-again Christian trend. I imagine these ideologies as daytime infomercials preying on the zeitgeist of anxiety:
Are you grappling with meaninglessness?
Are you feeling confused, lonely, and afraid?
Boy, do I have some certainty for you!
In some ideologies certainty is packaged up in moral panic: The paedophilic elite are drinking the blood of children.
In others it is packaged in personal salvation: You are a sinner but if you repent you can be saved!
Or maybe they offer the allure of a global saviour, be it Trump or Jesus.
And in the ‘wellness industry’ they almost always offer a product or service; another yoni egg, a homeopathic vaccine, an all-meat diet, or a sense of ‘belonging’ to a special community. However, that illusive sense of belonging is always behind a paywall and conditional on your continuous participation in groupthink.
Ideologies provide simplistic grand narratives and in doing so, they meet the human needs for certainty and meaning. Our brains seem to be wired to seek out and create myths and stories. We all want a defining myth; a reason to live and die. There’s nothing wrong with our drive towards meaning, but oftentimes it gets hijacked by false certainty and dogma. Something that is characteristic of immature ideologies is the binary representation of good and evil. These ideologies play into the cognitive bias of dichotomous thinking.
Dichotomous thinking makes it more compelling to believe that the ‘plandemic’ was orchestrated by evil forces rather than believing it was the result of cause and effect. Evil is easier to accept than the chaos of uncertainty. Ideologies that push the idea of ‘evil’ are also likely to offer clear cut solutions to protect yourself from that evil. They offer the dual illusion of certainty and control.
The Just-World Fallacy
I often return to the just-world fallacy because it is another one of the cognitive biases that commandeers the human desires for control and certainty. The just-world fallacy is the belief that if you’re a good person, then good things will happen to you. On the flipside of that is the belief that bad things happen to bad people. The just-world fallacy is dressed up in many different ways – as karma, the hyper-individualistic values of neoliberalism, the belief in heaven and hell, and in the nexus where people claim to be against retributive justice even as they participate in merciless cancel campaigns.
To believe that the universe is ultimately just is to believe that people get what they deserve – and that you can protect yourself and your loved ones by following the rules of engagement of your ideology/religion. Even a moment of reflection disproves this theory. Horrendous things happen to pious people all the time. Many people within toxic hyper-woke spaces have discovered that no matter how closely they adhere to the doctrine, they are not safe from cancellation. The just-world fallacy is magical thinking. It aligns with stage two of James W. Fowler’s stages of faith. In this mythic-literal stage people strongly believe in the benevolence and justice of the universe. As the name implies, people in this stage also tend towards a literal interpretation of myths and metaphors. Fowler designates this stage of faith to 7–12-year-old children. However, people may stagnate in this stage as moving beyond it involves confronting the conflicts between one’s beliefs which provide a sense of safety and control, and reality.
Our existence within a vast universe of innumerable existing, emerging and interacting factors should invite us to re-examine any conception of control. The just-world fallacy is effective in providing people with a sense of comfort, and I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting that. However, it’s important to interrogate, as I think we would be hard-pressed to conjure up an ideology that is as compassion-dulling as the just-world fallacy. If you believe that someone deserves their fate, just that little bit of mental calculus can diminish your compassion and reduce your likelihood to act in supportive ways. The just-world fallacy is also indicative of a low level of moral development. Being “good” to avoid bad things happening or being good so you can go to heaven, are ultimately selfish incentives. Perhaps as children the threat of punishment and reward are necessary motivations for moral action, but I like to imagine the adults in our society growing beyond this stage.
Do we really need a God, or to believe in karma to act with kindness towards one another?
Can kindness not be meaningful and valued in and of itself?
Can we apprehend the devastation of misfortune without believing that somehow that person, or group, or country deserved it?
The recognition that there is nothing we can do to guard ourselves or our loved ones against misfortune such as accidents, disease, heartache, and death, requires its own grieving process. The world isn’t fair. There is no supernatural force balancing the scales of justice. There is no ultimate or absolute sense of meaning. If we want to move in the direction of a more just, thriving, and inspired world, first we need to decide what that would look like and how to move towards it.
Towards a Tentative sense of Meaning and Guiding Principles
The process of defining our own meaning, values, and moral code takes time and intentionality. It is in this process of reflection that we encounter the paradoxes inherent in the existential concerns:
If there is no ultimate meaning, we must endeavour to create a personal sense of meaning.
If nothing matters, we are free to live and create in novel ways.
If we are responsible for our actions, our morality will provide the edges of our freedom.
If we are existentially alone, we are also connected through our isolation.
Our inevitable death propels us to answer the question: what is worth living for?
Sitting with these existential concerns has invited me to think about the principles I want to live by. So far, these three principles feel like meaningful guideposts:
Connection – how can I be present, attuned and engaged in my relationship to myself, others, and the earth?
Contribution – how can I reduce and ease suffering? How can I contribute to the joy and wellbeing of others?
Creativity – in what ways can I honestly express my inner world for its own sake as well as for the opportunity to bond over our common humanity, and our shared experiences of suffering and joy.
It is meaningful to me, sacred even, to organise my personal life and my politics around these principles. I have also taken to asking different people about the principles that define their lives. Some of the guiding principles I have heard from other people include: compassion, truth, syntropy, vulnerability, and even the moment-by-moment question, would this make a great story?
I guess these are a little bit like religious tenets – but they are our tenets of our personal religions that we have arrived at through contemplation. Our principles are the things we deem meaningful and moral. We cannot and should not arrive at these tenets within a vacuum. Hopefully the existential inquiries about why and how we should live lead us to engage with many different thinkers, experiences, practices, and diverse fields of thought. From there, we can form our principles based on our engagement with and reflection on these influences. I think we are more likely to live in alignment with our principles if we intimately understand how we came to value them.
In exploring what is truly important and meaningful, people seem to end up in similar places – some variation on love, interconnectedness, and actualisation. Yet, I still think there is something important about people going through that process and landing on the specific principles that speak to them. For some people, the word kindness might evoke the nectar of their heart, for other people, compassion might strike closer to the core.
Last week, I met with a group of friends to talk about meaning and sensemaking. We shared our tenets and reflected on how these can be like mini religions. One thing that emerged from our exploration was the recognition that although our principles can provide a rich sense of personal meaning and morality, there is a way that we are impoverished without a collective meaning-making myth. Obviously, this is something religions and ideologies provide – a shared story. A shared story and a collective sense of meaning has the power to elevate us from feelings of loneliness. And honestly, I’m still not sure what the non-religious or non-conspiracy theory version of shared grand narrative might look like – perhaps Fully Automated Luxury Communism? Or some other collective imagining of a society organised around creativity, interconnectivity, and flourishing.
Stories can take hold of us in such a powerful way and simultaneously fill the voids of meaninglessness and isolation. However, myths can easily become concretised and dogmatic instead of remaining fluid, archetypal, and connective. Our maps of the universe are and will always be maps.
As meaning-making creatures, we will always look to maps and stories to make sense of our lives and to attempt to situate ourselves in the vastness of the universe. Knowing that, here are some of the questions I think are important to ask about the principles and stories we choose to live by:
How does this story inspire me to act towards myself, others, and the earth?
Does it evoke a sense of common humanity or encourage an in-group out-group mentality?
In this narrative, am I a passive or active participant in creating a more moral and compassionate universe?
Is this genuinely meaningful to me, or am I outsourcing my meaning-making to avoid existential anxiety?
Does it sell certainty or invoke curiosity?
Something I am grateful for is my lack of certainty. I am uncertain about the how and why of existence, both cosmically and personally. But this uncertainty propels continuous curiosity, learning, explorative dialogue, and infinite questions. Without a concretised sense of meaning, I am faced with the lifelong task of tentative meaning-making, reflection, and revision as I strive to embody my answers to the great existential questions.