The Meaning Crisis
We can find belonging at work and within our families, or experience transcendence while taking a walk through the park or visiting an art museum. We can choose a career that helps us serve others, or draft our life story to understand how we got to be the way we are. We may move from one city to another, change jobs, and lose touch with friends as the years go by, but we can continue to find meaning by harnessing the pillars in new ways in our new circumstances. And when we keep the pillars in mind, we find meaning in even the most unexpected of places, whether we’re on our commute, inside of a prison, at the top of a mountain in West Texas—or on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
Compassion lies at the center of the pillar of belonging. When we open our hearts to others and approach them with love and kindness, we ennoble both those around us and ourselves—and the ripples of our compassionate acts persist, even long after we’re gone. A story from the life of the Buddha offers an instructive parable. After the Buddha had his awakening beneath the Bodhi tree, he devoted his life to traveling through India teaching people of all classes the dharma, the basic principles of Buddhism—that life is full of suffering, which is caused by our endless cravings, and that we can be liberated from suffering by cultivating wisdom, living morally, and disciplining our minds through meditation.
When he was eighty years old, the Buddha was still traversing the countryside in his robes and bare feet, but he no longer had the energy of his younger years. “I am old and worn out,” he said, “like a dilapidated cart held together with thin straps.”
Approaching a tiny village, the Buddha grew frail and weak. When he arrived, a local blacksmith named Cunda, in a gesture of devotion and hospitality, offered him a meal that, the story goes, the Buddha knew was spoiled. The Buddha, however, did not want to hurt Cunda by rejecting the kind and generous offer of food. So he ate the food, even though he knew he would fall ill. “And soon after the Blessed One had eaten the meal provided by Cunda the metalworker,” we learn, “a dire sickness fell upon him, even dysentery, and he suffered sharp and deadly pains.”
When it became clear he was going to die, the Buddha once more exhibited a heroic compassion for Cunda. “It may come to pass,” Buddha told his attendant, “that someone will cause remorse to Cunda the metalworker, saying: ‘It is no gain to you, friend Cunda, but a loss, that it was from you the Buddha took his last alms meal, and then came to his end.’ ”
The Buddha instructed his attendant to dispel Cunda’s remorse by telling him that he played an indispensable role in the Buddha’s life. Cunda, after all, gave the Buddha his final meal: “There are two offerings of food,” the Buddha explained to his attendant, “which are of equal fruition, of equal outcome, exceeding in grandeur the fruition and result of any other offerings of food. Which two? The one partaken of by the Buddha before becoming fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment; and the one partaken of by the Buddha before passing into the state of Nirvana in which no element of clinging remains.” In other words, the meal Cunda had prepared was one of the most important ones the Buddha ever ate.
The Buddha didn’t have to extend his compassion to Cunda in those final moments of his life. He was deathly ill and in a great deal of pain. Instead of worrying about the blacksmith who had inadvertently poisoned him, the Buddha could have devoted his precious time to preparing for death or meditating or contemplating the legacy of Buddhism. But he didn’t. Instead, he turned his attention to Cunda and assured him that the bond the two of them formed was meaningful.
The Buddha’s story contains a lesson for all of us. The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted. Meaning is not something that we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others.
Though living with purpose may make us happier and more determined, a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with these personal benefits but with making the world a better place. Indeed, many great thinkers have argued that in order for individuals to live meaningful lives, they must cultivate the strengths, talents, and capacities that lie within them and use them for the benefit of others.
That idea was expressed forcefully by the eighteenth-century German thinker Immanuel Kant. Kant asks us to consider a man—one like so many of us today—who “finds in himself a talent that by means of some cultivation could make him a useful human being in all sorts of respects. However, he sees himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to give himself up to gratification rather than to make the effort to expand and improve his fortunate natural predispositions.” What should this man do? Should he abandon the cultivation of his natural talents for a life of enjoyment and ease? Or should he pursue his purpose?
These questions are the driving force behind the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. The story begins with Will, a psychologically troubled twenty-year-old from South Boston. Will drifts purposelessly through life, working as a janitor at MIT and spending most of his free time drinking with his friends, even though he is a genius who can solve math problems that the graduate students at MIT cannot. When he gets in trouble for assaulting a police officer, Will gets a lucky break: an MIT professor, Gerald Lambeau, intervenes on his behalf. The judge agrees to release Will to Lambeau’s supervision under the condition that he meet with Lambeau regularly to work on math.
Lambeau wants Will to put his talent to good use, so he does his best to mentor him and arranges job interviews for him with prestigious employers. But Will is defiant. He is not interested in developing his mathematical genius. He mocks his interviewers during their meetings and insults Lambeau, calling his research a joke. Later, when Will’s best friend, Chuckie, asks him how his interviews are going, Will implies he’s not interested in being a “lab rat.” He’d rather stay in South Boston and work in construction.
But Chuckie, like Lambeau, doesn’t want Will to waste his potential—and he tells his friend that his attitude is selfish. “You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ’Cause tomorrow,” Chuckie says, “I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine.” Will, however, has the chance to live a better life by putting his skills to work—skills that his friends, Chuckie explains, would do anything to have. But he’s too afraid. It would be an “insult to us if you’re still here in 20 years,” Chuckie says, and a waste of Will’s time.
Should Will throw away his gifts because he does not want to cultivate them, or should he doggedly work to perfect his skills and master his craft, as Lambeau and Chuckie want him to do?
For Kant—as for Chuckie and Lambeau—the answer is clear: a rational person, Kant explains, “necessarily wills that all capacities in him be developed, because they serve him and are given to him for all sorts of possible purposes.” That is, his talents can benefit others and society, and so he has a moral obligation to cultivate them. Kant’s ideas, as the contemporary philosopher Gordon Marino points out, fly in the face of the current cultural imperative, often heard during graduation season, to “do what you love.” To Kant, the question is not what makes you happy. The question is how to do your duty, how to best contribute—or, as the theologian Frederick Buechner put it, your vocation lies “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
one of the best ways for people to make meaning through storytelling is to reflect on the pivotal moments of their lives—the central scene or scenes from their personal narratives—and consider how those moments shaped who they are and how their lives have unfolded.
The exercise of imagining how life would have turned out if some event had or had not occurred is what academics call counterfactual thinking. In research published in 2010, psychologist Laura Kray of the University of California at Berkeley and her colleagues asked participants to come into their lab and reflect on significant experiences from their lives, and then consider how their lives could have developed differently had the experiences not occurred.
The researchers asked students at Northwestern, for example, to reflect on their decision to attend that school: “Think about how you decided where to go to college. How did you end up coming to Northwestern?” the students were asked. “Looking back, list the broad sequence of things that led to your decision.” After responding to the essay prompt, half of the participants were asked to respond to one more statement: “Describe all the ways that things could have turned out differently.”
This simple exercise, researchers found, made the participants rate an important life experience as more meaningful. They were more likely to endorse statements like “Coming to Northwestern has added meaning to my life” and “My decision to come to Northwestern was one of the most significant choices of my life,” and to say that the event defined who they were. The researchers found similar results when they asked participants to reflect on a close friendship. Mentally subtracting meeting the friend, like mentally subtracting the decision to attend Northwestern, led participants to conclude that the friendship was more meaningful.
Why is counterfactual thinking so powerful? The answer, Kray suggests, is that this kind of exercise engages the sense-making process more rigorously than does simply thinking about the meaning of an event. First, it helps us appreciate the benefits of the path we ultimately took. As the study participants thought about what their lives would be like without the pivotal event, they mostly imagined alternative lives that were worse, not better. Without that event, they concluded, their lives would lack many relationships and experiences that were important to them.
Since the dawn of human consciousness, men and women have looked up to the night sky, marveling at the stars, wondering what they were and what they represented. Studying the celestial spheres, they sought answers to the biggest questions of human existence. How did the world begin? Will it end? What else is out there? They sought omens, wisdom, and hints of ancestors past. But what they really sought was meaning.
The same is true today. When we look up at night, we do not see random balls of fire or scattered dots in the sky. We see bears and warriors. We see hunters and swans. We see the powder white band of the Milky Way, and, if we are religious, we think “heaven.” We may know more about the stars than our ancestors did, but they still represent some of the most impenetrable mysteries of human existence. Though we invest so much into building our lives, the few decades we are on this earth amount to very little compared with the billions of years that the universe has existed before us and will continue to exist long after we are gone.
You might expect the insignificance we feel in the face of this knowledge to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of our lives. But it in fact does the opposite. The abject humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. A brush with mystery—whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in the hospital delivery room—can transform us.
This is the power of transcendence. The word “transcend” means “to go beyond” or “to climb.” A transcendent, or mystical, experience is one in which we feel that we have risen above the everyday world to experience a higher reality. In Buddhism, transcendence is sometimes described through the metaphor of flight. The seeker begins on earth, but then flies upward, “breaking the roof.” Then, writes the religious scholar Mircea Eliade, he “flies away through the air [and] shows figuratively that he has transcended the cosmos and attained a paradoxical and even inconceivable mode of being.” The metaphor of “breaking the roof” captures the key element of the mystical experience, whether religious or secular. You break out of the profane world of checking email and eating breakfast, and yield to the desire to commune, however briefly, with a higher and more sacred order. Many people have had transcendent experiences, and they consider them among the most meaningful and important events in their lives.
We all carry emotional baggage of some kind—baggage that can bring with it fear, hurt, guilt, and insecurity. For most of us, there is at least one specific source of pain that lives inside of us and colors the way we see the world. The memory of an alcoholic mother or an abusive father, the pain of being bullied at school, the horror of losing a child, the trauma of being raped, the helplessness of being held hostage by depression, cancer, addiction, or other ailments of the mind and body: these experiences of suffering can be tremendously difficult to overcome.
They also pose serious threats to finding meaning in life. They can shatter our fundamental assumptions about the world—that people are good, the world is just, and our environment is a safe and predictable place. They can breed cynicism and hatred. They can throw us into despair and even drive us to want to end our lives. They can lead us to have troubled relationships, to lose our sense of identity and purpose, to abandon our faith, to conclude that we don’t matter or that life is senseless—that it is all, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth says, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But this is an incomplete picture of adversity. Traumatic experiences can leave deep, sometimes permanent, wounds. Yet struggling through them can also push us to grow in ways that ultimately make us wiser and our lives more fulfilling. We do so by relying on the pillars of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. If those pillars are strong, we’ll be able to lean on them when adversity strikes. But if the pillars crumble or fall as a result of a shattering trauma, we can rebuild them to be even stronger and more resilient.