Oh Life, There Must Be More!

Listening to Alan Parsons Project during my morning workout, I contemplated the song “Oh Life (There Must be More),” about a woman who has lost hope, whose life is empty and meaningless.   I tell students that we live in a psychologically difficult era in history.  In the past people didn’t doubt the meaning of life or feel the need to prove their self worth.  These things were defined communally and peoples’ identities, values and sense of purpose were part of something greater than themselves.

I wouldn’t want to go back to that more “natural” state — I’m too much a product of the modern world, prizing my individuality and freedom, concepts that emerged as dominant during the enlightenment.   Having tasted that fruit, I can’t go back to paradise.   The knowledge of the possibilities freedom entails makes it impossible to return to life tied to tradition, custom and community.   Pandora’s box has been opened.

Yet this new freedom also creates a sense of despair and uncertainty.  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a meaning?   How do I fit in?  Am I lost in the middle of a hopeless world (another APP lyric)?  Look at the stress, anxiety and depression rampant in a society with material prosperity beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few generations ago.  With no clear answers and with the responsibility to define ones’ own life, people lack the bonds and traditions that gave life clear purpose and meaning.   Lacking the deep community and extended family bonds that were a psychological and social support system, it’s easy for people to feel untethered, adrift and without purpose.  How do people handle this?

Ideology.  One solution is to throw oneself into an ideology, to find a belief about how the world should be and dedicate oneself to living that life and promoting their cause.   It could be socialism, anarcho-capitalism, or religious extremism (though religion itself is a separate category).   This is an especially appealing solution for those who hate uncertainty and want a clear answer to a question of what life is all about.  It gives one a sense of self-esteem (“I have figured out the right way, yet I am surrounded by people either too ignorant or unprincipled to understand or accept the truth) and purpose.

Ideology as a purpose tends to appeal to intelligent folk; they are the true believers.  Those who follow along often don’t care so much about the ideology, they’re attracted to the sense of belonging with like minded folk.   Ideology creates false certainty, a false sense of superiority, a belief one is more moral and principled than others, and allows one to push uncomfortable questions and dilemmas under the carpet.  It’s an illusion (or delusion), but it can be effective.

Religion.  Religious extremists tend to be ideological, but most religious folk are not.  Rather, they look to their faith for the answer of what life means and how they should live.   Yes, they understand that the enlightenment and modern science casts doubt on their beliefs, but they’ve chosen faith.   It seems right to them in their heart, it is reinforced by community (people in their church, other believers) and they are able to shut off that part of their brain that might doubt and question their beliefs.   This harkens back to pre-enlightenment thought and can give people a profound sense of purpose and meaning.   Some who have had a crisis and then “convert” to a religion are so relieved by its capacity to banish doubt about self-worth and personal crises that they are convinced they have found truth.

Throw Oneself Into the World.  Some people respond to uncertainty by dashing headlong into life, throwing themselves into the world to experience all they can.  Their response to doubts about meaning or self worth is to enhance experience.   It might be adventures, traveling, competition in ones’ career, or hedonism.    This category includes such diverse folk as those in the business world who compete on Wall Street to try to earn as much money as they can and those social activists to do all they can to help the disadvantaged and alleviate suffering.   Whether it’s competition for status or constant efforts to help others, experience in the world defines life for these folk.   It can be successful, but also can lead to a kind of hyperactivity syndrome if more experience is constantly needed to quell uncertainty and doubt.

This solution also creates the possibility of crisis.  If one defines life by career competition then a career setback or disaster can create personal crisis.   Attractive people might define their self-worth by beauty and how others treat them, meaning that as they age they might find themselves unprepared to deal with lifes’ dilemmas.   Social activists might end up overwhelmed by the slow pace at which the world changes.    People in this category are the movers and shakers, those who change the world.   They are not always the most satisfied and content, however.

Friends and family (Community).  Other people focus on the more immediate world around them, their circle of friends and family.  This is not a mutually exclusive set of “strategies” to deal with modern life.   A religious person who also has strong connections with their community can be very resilient against modern psychological ills.   Someone who throws himself into the world will be less prone to crisis if that is complemented by a strong sense of community.   Like religion this harkens back to the pre-modern support systems that people naturally had; to the extent one can identify with a group greater than oneself, one avoids loneliness and has reassurance of ones’ self-worth and meaning.

Cynical Self-reliance.   Many people recognize the inability of the world to provide meaning, reject religion as mythology, and face reality with a kind of cynical “this world sucks, but it’s the only one I have” approach.   Such people are honest and critical thinking, meaning they can’t shut down the questioning part of the brain that religious folk silence, aren’t susceptible to ideological dogma, have been disappointed by the world and are too individualistic to lose themselves in community or family/friends.   The world has suffering, pain, and despair, yet with a wry sense of humor and resignation to reality — the world won’t change any time soon — they make it through life with their self honesty protecting them from psychological despair.

Uncertain Spirituality.   Others believe that there is “something more” to life, and put their faith in a vague undefined spirituality.   They are too critical to accept religious dogma or ideology, have decided that the world is transient and offers no deep sense of meaning, tend not to be as connected with community, and yet see the world as beautiful and meaningful.   Such people accept uncertainty easily; they may seek an ‘answer key,’ but recognize that it’s OK if they never find it.   They are individually resilient, relying on their spiritual faith for their sense of purpose and meaning.   Unlike religious folk they don’t claim to have the right belief — if it works for them, that’s all that matters.   This includes a lot of so called “new age” thinking.   These people tend to be introspective and see life as a way to work on their own emotional (or spiritual) development more than fixing problems in the world.

So my question to my readers:  Does this list make sense?   Do you fit into any of these categories?   What other categories might be added to the list?  (I can think of a few, but when a post hits 1200 I try to wrap it up).

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  1. #1 by Susan on October 16, 2011 - 13:59

    Thought provoking. Thanks. According to a book I’m reading, Jean-Paul Sartre says humans need meaning to their life.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on October 16, 2011 - 15:05

      I think Sartre is right. I think one thing I left off the list was consumption — a think a lot of consumer excess is driven by a quest for people to find meaning. Thanks for the comment, Susan!

  2. #3 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on October 16, 2011 - 14:21

    Scott,

    I couldn’t tell you if this list is mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, but I do think the cynical self-reliance piece fits me to a tee (although I don’t see religion as mythology, but would say the older I get the weaker my religious beliefs have become).

    When I was younger, I had very strong respect for authority, which I retained in the military. After spending about 5 years in the private sector, I got burned on multiple occasions when superiors blocked my ideas because of political rather than personal reasons. In some cases, I used simple mathematics to demonstrate why they were wrong – yet they ignored the analysis anyway – and they ended up being wrong. On other cases, I just ignored them and ultimately helped them avoid some pretty high profile mistakes (yet during the time I’m sure these folks resented me for doing so – they probably still do. There are some exceptions to this rule. For instance, I used to work for the current Deputy Secretary of Defense, who is easily the smartest human being I’ve ever met.

    The bottom line is that I’ve learned that most people who were successful before me were either lucky enough to be born in the right year, or were very politically savvy. However, many are lazy or incompetent. For this reason, I distrust nearly all authority, until that authority earns my respect.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on October 16, 2011 - 21:33

      Like any case of “ideal types” they probably are not mutually exclusive and there may be mixes! I think when people get in authority and then are unable to admit if they made a mistake that’s a sign of lack of confidence. They think they don’t really deserve their position so they can’t let anyone see weakness. By current Deputy Secretary of Defense do you mean the guy who just took over that position last week (Ashton Carter)? It’s always nice to know that a good person is in that important of a position! I don’t know really anything about him.

  3. #6 by modestypress on October 16, 2011 - 18:57

    The list seems pretty accurate and complete at first glance. I will throw out a couple of thoughts off the top of my head that may or may not be useful.

    1) Curiosity. We are curious creatures. If we see a closed box, we open it to see what is inside. If we see a cave, we crawl inside. If we are in a cave and we see some light coming through a crack we push our way outside. If we look at stars in the sky, we design telescopes to study them; now we are plotting how to visit other solar systems. This is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes our curiosity saves our butts–we discover food when we starving or we find a way to escape a threat that may eat us (grizzly bear?). Sometimes our curiosity gets us into trouble. We discover a grizzly bear and it eats us so it doesn’t starve, or we get trapped in the cave and starve.

    2) This leads to another thought, which is that sometimes we are in such dire straits that all we can think about is survival. We are animals and all animals strive to survive. This reminds me of a joke from the days of the cold war. (You could probably think of a way to update it to make it relevant to modern times.) An American citizen and a Soviet citizen (in the days of Stalin) meet at an international conference and are chatting over a cup of coffee and trying to understand each other’s culture and values. Russian: “What makes you happy in America?” American: “I come home in my almost new car which is running fine from work. I drive up to my almost new house in a pleasant suburb. I open the door and I am greeted by my beautiful wife who tells me dinner is almost on the table (and I smell enticing scents from the kitchen). I am greeted with hugs by my fine 2-1/2 children, a handsome boy on the high school football team who has a scholarship to MIT, and a beautiful girl, a cheerleader, who will be going to Vassar. My dog runs up and barks happily. This makes me happy. What makes you happy in the USSR? Russian: “I trudge home through the snow and ice-covered streets from my pointless job in the tractor factory where I pretend to work to my fifth floor cold water apartment in Moscow. I trudge up the crumbling steps to my squalid apartment. I am greeted by surly wife, who is cooking a few spoiled potatoes and a little cabbage and by my two surly children. Shortly after I close the door, I hear a loud pounding on the door. A voice calls, ‘We are from the police. Open the door, quickly!’ With trembling fingers, I open the door. Two men in overcoats stare at me. They obviously have weapons in their pockets. One of them demands: ‘Are you Vassily Ivanovich?’ ‘No,’ I gasp through trembling lips, my teeth chattering from cold and fright. ‘I am Boris Surviyev. Vassily lives on the fourth floor, the apartment right under us.’ “Show us your identification papers!” demands the first secret policeman. He examines them carefully and then throws them on the floor. Angrily, he turns toward the second officer. ‘You fool!’ he screams. ‘I should probably shoot you while we are at it, as well as Vassily. You sent me to the wrong floor.’ Without as much as an apology, the secret slam the door and head down the stairs toward Vassily’s apartment. That is what makes me happy,” finishes the Soviet citizen.

    The above story makes me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

    Also, as animals, produced by evolution (thought many of us deny that we are animals) we find meaning through our progeny, also referred to as sociobiology. The way I put it is, “We are genes in tight jeans.”

    I also respond to Peggy Lee’s song, “Is That All There Is?”

    • #7 by Scott Erb on October 16, 2011 - 21:39

      Agreed on the hierarchy of needs. Curiosity is no doubt inherent, but it can be culturally bound — many cultures do not have people making telescopes or innovate, we in the best have almost no prohibitions about following our curiosity. Nice video link!

  4. #8 by modestypress on October 16, 2011 - 19:00

    As usual, I am dyslexic. It should say, “Without as much as an apology, the secret POLICEMAN slam the door and head down the stairs toward Vassily’s apartment.” I hope the secret police don’t take me a way for this offense.

  1. I Wonder as I Wander « Collapse of Civilization

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