Home>Articles>The Crisis of the West and the Quest for Meaning

The Crisis of the West and the Quest for Meaning

“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” Carl Gustav Jung

As with so many civilizations of the past, we live in a time of crisis. Contemporary culture is caught in a cul-de-sac, a battle zone of competing ideologies and dogmas. Although the human race has a long history of generating millenarian hype and apocalyptic panics, for many people the state we’re in right now really does have an air of gathering gloom and a palpable sense of ‘something’s got to give’ unlike any in the past. Leaving aside religious rapture fantasies and the techno-utopian view which posits a future of immortal human-machine hybrids populating the galaxy, there are two basic schools of thought concerning what lies ahead. The first essentially predicts the extinction of most if not all life on Earth due to environmental collapse. Lights out, game over. The second envisions a sort of slow-motion apocalypse as the natural and man-made systems upon which modern society depends gradually disintegrate making life as we know it, with its endless expansion and perpetual growth, simply impossible.

But another important dimension of the human story – many would say the most important – is that of the spirit, or soul; all that pertains to the unseen, the non-material, and our higher selves. Traditionally the province of philosophy and religion, the relevance and even the very existence of any such non-material realms is bitterly disputed. Needless to say, the alternatives to the aforementioned doomsday scenarios offered by religion and New Age movements are generally dismissed as worse than useless by science and secular society. The Biblical Armageddon, in fact, sounds a lot like the environmental collapse and extinction scenario, while the much vaunted New Age ‘shift in consciousness’ has distinct parallels with The Rapture. The fact is that almost every widely-held world view carries either a bleak prognosis for humankind or some form of utopian paradise currently untested or untestable.

Whatever the possibilities for the future, our view of them and in some cases the likelihood they’ll actually materialise are profoundly affected by whether we consider existence itself to have any meaning. This is evident in everyday life. Those who feel a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives, however vaguely articulated, tend to experience the world quite differently from those who see life as essentially pointless.

The seismic shifts in society brought on by the scientific and industrial revolutions have stripped the Western world – and subsequently great swathes of the globe re-fashioned in its image – of meaning, leaving billions scrabbling for substitutes in the ‘good life’ of material goods, status, or some idealised combination of both. The prevailing attitude is that we are born, we live, we die, and that’s it. It’s once around the ride so enjoy it while you can. No one gets out alive. Life is an accident, the Universe is meaningless, matter is all that matters, God is dead. Both the natural and the man-made worlds are indeed complex, colourful, and at times genuinely amazing, but when we are implicitly and explicitly told at almost every turn that it’s all meaningless, the results can be psychologically devastating. This applies to societies as much as to individuals. There are certainly people who seem quite well-adjusted to such a view – from existentialists to nihilists to humanists and those who actively avoid the big questions – but the idea of our entire existence being simply a pointless by-product of pure chance is an assault on the collective subconscious. Quite simply, it runs contrary to innate inner feelings we all share, consciously or otherwise, that there’s something incredible and profound behind, below and beyond the everyday three-dimensional reality we take for granted. While materialist reductionism derides or denies this notion, both science and religion hint at it.

The history of the human race is a quest for meaning. First, understanding our immediate environment for the purpose of survival. Then, knowledge of the wider world, each other, and ourselves. From subatomic particles to the stars, we have reached beyond the narrow limits of our five senses searching for reason and purpose. Even if we do sometimes view life as a random accident, we still want to know how things work. We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world and seem unable to truly thrive without some overarching purpose. We can try to find it in a single life well lived, but lived to what end? The propagation of the species? While it’s true that many people have children in an attempt to assuage the fear of their own mortality, keeping the population merry-go-round turning hardly seems like a worthwhile end in itself, particularly when coupled with the unravelling economic models of late-era capitalism.

In Greybeard, a 1964 novel by British author Brian Aldiss, humans find themselves to be the last of their kind. Set decades after the Earth’s population has been sterilised by contamination from nuclear bomb tests, the story depicts a world slowly emptying of humans as an ageing, childless population grimly soldiers on to no apparent end. In P. D. James’s 1992 novel The Children of Men, the story centres on a near-future society stricken by mass infertility. As the steadily depopulating world descends into chaos, a repressive police state struggles to maintain order. In the 2011 movie Melancholia, everyday human hopes and fears play out against an apocalyptic backdrop, specifically, a wedding taking place just as a rogue planet is about to collide with Earth. The responses vary from denial to catatonic insanity and even building a ‘magic cave’ to survive the disaster. The inference here is that without future generations, life literally and figuratively has no purpose; meaning has died. And yet if the entire human enterprise is merely an exercise in futility, why would our extinction even matter? Do we really just have children in an attempt to achieve vicarious immortality? Is fear of our own death really the only reason we feel compelled to see the species somehow continue?

Some argue that to seek meaning in life is not only deluded but potentially dangerous. The quest for meaning, they argue, has brought us religious fundamentalism and all manner of atrocities as one world-view seeks to suppress another. And in seeking some ultimate purpose, do we devalue or even deny the present moment, the instant immediacy of where we are right now? Given the conflict caused by competing world-views, is there something to be said for the active acceptance of or even the embrace of meaninglessness? Are the big questions of existence actually a burden worth bearing? Adopting this attitude, some may find themselves caught in what we could call the nihilist conundrum. If you believe life to be meaningless then you may, perhaps unconsciously, find meaning in that belief in much the same way as someone who believes in God or Allah. Identify too closely with your beliefs and you may come into conflict with ideas, institutions or individuals who run counter to them. Manifestations of this can be seen in militant atheism and so-called ‘scientism’, an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. If we choose to oppose the religious we should not become too religious in our opposition.

There is considerable evidence (albeit anecdotal) suggesting that certain religious people may live longer and be healthier and happier than other members of their society. Even if they’re deluding themselves, apparently it can be beneficial. The peace of mind – or whatever they happen to derive from their beliefs – is a spiritual placebo effect. People believe that their lives have meaning and therefore they experience positive effects. This overlaps with in-vogue wish-fulfilment practices such as positive thinking and visualisation: Act and feel as if it’s already happened and it’s more likely that it will happen. On the other hand, there are many atheists, hardened sceptics, and various non-believers who despair at the world, and not just at the antics of religious fanatics. They despair at the pointlessness of their own lives and existence in general. They lead unhappy and often unhealthy lives unable to feel any sense of wonder about the world around them. Better to be joyless in embracing cold, hard reality than comforted by a delusional fantasy. They are adherents of Albert Camus’ philosophy, “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I have met many of these people, including some at a Humanist wedding ceremony led by a celebrant instead of a priest. I was struck more by the similarities to a church wedding than the differences. Rituals, symbols, and ceremonies are not only hallmarks of religion, they are integral to many facets of wider society without which we find it difficult to interact. No matter how hard we try to drive it out, meaning – even in symbolic form – comes creeping back in again.

Evidence for meaning being integral to our lives can be found in the ways in which we seek and are offered it by everything from politics to popular culture. The purposeful drive propagated by religions and felt but repressed by many non-religious people has been replaced – ineffectively and even dangerously – by things and stuff. Existence may be meaningless, but our lives still somehow have to be growing and going… somewhere. Notions of always wanting life to be better or more have become incredibly ingrained in modern societies. This ultimately fruitless search for meaning can end in bitterness and resentment. Social striving itself can become a burden not worth bearing. In attempting to avoid the big questions of existence, we often find ourselves confronted by them yet again.

It has been said that the deeper one enters into an experience the more meaningful it becomes. Our modern techno-industrial societies, however, revel in shallowness and superficiality. Video games, TV, social media, pornography, gambling, alcohol, drugs, fast food, and an endless cavalcade of consumer products and gadgets, there is seemingly no limit to the ways in which we are offered the ghost of meaning, pseudo-purpose in hedonistic abandon, grabbing and grasping, and competitive acquisition. But that fleeting ‘Friday feeling’ at the end of the work week too often gives way to Sunday neurosis, five more days sitting slumped at a desk waiting to get drunk again or maybe go shopping. “Hanging on in quiet desperation” as Pink Floyd had it. Even hardcore materialists can hardly argue that, out of the billions of possibilities for human life on Earth, this is the best outcome. The response here tends to be that, in time, science and technology will free us from modern maladies and the techno-utopian future that always seems to be just around the corner will finally arrive.

Politicians also attempt to offer us meaning. Some are genuine, or at least earnest, but modern political systems tend to focus on short-term concerns and the everyday mechanics of life to the exclusion of any bigger picture. And of course history is littered with tyrants and demagogues who have wrecked lives and entire societies pursuing a utopian vision or final solution for their country or the world. When politicians today talk about having a ‘vision’, we simply tend to yawn and change channel. When America’s founding fathers spoke about their country in terms of destiny, the idea at least had some traction given the vast natural resources available at the time. Even Ronald Reagan’s cheery optimism was born of sincerely held belief and such resources and economic momentum still remaining in the US during the 1980s. Obama’s hope and change mantra, by contrast, rang hollow. And yet many unwilling or unable to take control of their own lives continue to look to their leaders for inspiration and answers. They desperately want things to be different but they’re no longer interested in what that difference might be. They vote against something rather than for something. Take Trump and Brexit for example. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was so pathetic that a creature like Trump could get elected without voters even knowing what a Trump administration might look like. Likewise, Brexit was mainly a vote against the European Union. The people of the United Kingdom are still waiting to find out just what it was that they voted for. Passive detachment and disengagement from politics is now being replaced by the Russian Roulette of ‘anything’s better than this’. One is reminded of Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man in which a psychiatrist, feeling bored and unfulfilled in life, starts making decisions based on the roll of a die. This is what a world without meaning has come to.

There is abundant evidence that great human civilizations have gone to the brink of destruction in the past and in some cases been completely wiped out. Considering the current state of the world, it seems we’ve been here before, although arguably facing less extreme difficulties. Each time our species undergoes severe challenges or near-collapse, we somehow reconstitute ourselves on an even bigger scale, and thus the next wave of crises carries greater risk. This cycle may simply be part of evolution. But even if life does have meaning and purpose, it seems that human extinction remains a very real possibility. Although civilizations regularly pass through periods of consolidation and even decline, it appears that long-term stagnation is not a natural human condition. An inherent drive spurs us onward, even when the future appears shrouded in uncertainty. Our current era of rampant economic growth and resource extraction is experiencing ever greater systemic shocks and we are challenged to seek other avenues for our innate impulses. The next frontier for growth and potential may be in fact be the realm of mental, or spiritual growth, of increased expansion and integration within the human psyche. This calls for the rediscovery of meaning.

Some believe that the only way out of our current crisis is to go back to the past, to a simpler life and better times. But while re-learning the skills and technology of the past may prove crucial in facing some of the economic and environmental challenges currently unfolding, looking to the past is also a way of attempting to side-step an existential crisis. In this sense, the same can be said of techno-utopian and transhumanist visions in which all sources of human conflict simply vanish, or we stop thinking like humans, or even being human.

Many people feel physically and mentally besieged at the moment and this can result in narrow, negative, short-term thinking and a lack of imagination. Understanding the fact that there’s much more to the human story than the last few hundred years of industry, science, and environmental exploitation may allow us to act with more than just our own self-interest in mind. But this requires that we at least open up to the possibility of meaning, if not for ourselves, then for others. For many people, however, the dawning of meaning in life would carry with it an onerous sense of responsibility. Many of us tacitly embrace meaninglessness because it seems to absolve us of any such responsibility, and so anything goes and nothing matters. This can be seen not least in the apparent disregard so many people show for the future of the world their own children will inhabit, the ‘I’ll be dead by then’ syndrome. And, of course, many fear that opening up to the possibility of meaning lets God – the one who just won’t stay dead – in through the back door. We see this in acrimonious arguments over the existence of apparent intelligence and design in nature.

Whatever narrative we choose to believe, the quintessential human being is one who seeks meaning and a time comes in everyone’s life when they question their reason for living. Ultimately, the scientists at CERN and priests in a cathedral are engaged in the same quest. They’re gazing at the same puzzle box but seeing different things. In a world where everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing, we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re all part of the same awesome enigma. An existential vacuum has opened up and mass neurosis is now the norm. Those in control aren’t immune from the depression and addiction plaguing the wider population and their actions are now deepening a crisis that threatens us all. Simply turn on your television or read a newspaper to see the horrific results of depression and neurosis on a global scale. But where there is crisis, there is opportunity. Life without meaning is unbearable. This much should now be obvious even if we continue to deny it. The pursuit of power or pleasure won’t make our problems go away, in fact they’re what brought us to this point in the first place. Turn away in whatever direction you like, and there they are. But the pursuit of meaning can help us face these challenges. We can find meaning in confronting obstacles and overcoming them. It is the transformation through trauma of the hero’s journey. This is what we are being invited to do today. To fill the void and find what we have lost. This is why we’re here.

Originally published in New Dawn magazine, January / February 2019.