The Origins of Modern Meaninglessness
An existential archaeology dig: where our angst comes from these days, why it's here and what we can do about it.
Meaning in life can be a tricky thing.
Some folks are bugged about “the point of it all.” Others aren’t. Those who aren’t often seem baffled by those who are. The “unbugged” often seem to view the “bugged” as wrestling with an unnecessary problem with an obvious solution which, for some inexplicable reason, just doesn’t occur to them. “The answer is simply X!” is often the sentiment. That “X” varies widely, depending on who you’re talking to.
Meanwhile, the “have-nots” – those with no satisfying answer to the “what’s the point?” question – rarely consider a “poverty of meaning” to be a problem. They often blame a thousand other problems instead of their underlying cause.
A third group dismisses the meaning in life question entirely. This is usually either because they think they’re already solved it, or they’re convinced it’s hopelessly unsolvable and not even worth trying. Sometimes they think the entire issue is nonsensical to start with. Whatever the reasoning, they ignore or abandon the entire project altogether and just try to enjoy their dinner.
Life is good these days, depending on how you define and measure it.
Some say we’re living in the best society that’s ever existed.
We point to smart phones, air-conditioning, hands-free paper-towel dispensers and other conveniences to confirm that we have it really, really good now – or at least better we used to. The presumption is that these kinds of things, in the final analysis, really matter.
Yet different measures speak otherwise. Addictions are up.1 Suicides are up.2 Anxiety is up.3 Depression is up.4 Rates of happiness are down.5 Antianxiety and antidepressant medications are up.6 Pills that claim to help you do things like sleep7 and have sex8 and pay attention9 are up. Deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide are now at highest level since record-keeping began.10 There appears to be an epidemic of loneliness,11 a sexual recession,12 a breakdown of trust.13 We could go on.
But statistics fail to capture something profoundly personal in all this.
We can get a more vivid sense of the raw human experience of it from two letters. The first:
Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in work. They are carrying bricks in an open field. As soon as they have stacked all the bricks at one end of the field, they proceed to transport them to the opposite end. This continues without stop and every day of every year they are busy doing the same thing. One day one of the morons stops long enough to ask himself what he is doing. He wonders what purpose there is in carrying the bricks. And from that instant on he is not quite as content with his occupation as he had been before.
I am the moron who wonders why he is carrying the bricks.14
Here is the second (which has been reworded in phrasing, but not in meaning, to avoid focusing attention on any particular individual.)
I’m sorry, Mom.
I’ve written this note several times in my head over the past ten years, and this version finally feels right. I now believe that hope is nothing more than delayed disappointment. I’m tired. I realize that I don’t deserve to think this way because, on paper, I have a great life. I’m fortunate. I eat good food. I travel. I live in a great city. However, all of this seems trivial to me. It’s a first-world problem, I know. But I often feel alone while in a room full of my best friends. I’ve felt absolutely nothing during what should have been the happiest and darkest times in my life. No single conversation or situation has led me to do this.
These letters, as you might guess, were suicide notes.
There seems to be a general vibe in the air these days.
Call it “angst.” Or “alienation.” A view of life as a hard road that leads nowhere. A view of life as a relentless struggle that ends up as a dirt nap in your best suit or dress. Birth, then blaring hype surrounding a hollow pocket of nothing, then death. A struggle for status-symbols and the appearance of success while knowing it’s phony to the bone and all the way through. A pointless parade of poses engineered to convince others and ourselves that we really do matter, really we do, resulting in a glorification of superficiality. An underlying confusion about what the heck is really going on that metastasizes into hopelessness. A frenzy of activity surrounding a hysterical obsession with inconsequential nonsense. Sleepwalking through life, going through the motions, pretending it’s leading somewhere, hoping maybe there’s some point to it all. And what is the point? “There isn’t one” is often the answer we hear. There is no point, we don’t know anything, and nothing matters. Now, go enjoy yourself.
Or, in a word: meaninglessness.
Ernest Becker said that the primary job of a society to its members is to convey a sense of meaning. He described the functioning society as a vehicle for heroism that affirms that our lives matter, which helps us persevere through the brutal realities of life and death. And “matter,” not in a “Great job holding that pencil! You’re awesome! Here’s a trophy!” kind of way, but in a “this genuinely makes the painful struggles of life truly worth it” kind of way.
If Becker is right, or anywhere close, then modern society might be failing in its primary responsibility, even while excelling at everything else.
Meaninglessness doesn’t show up as a belief in nothing, but as an obsession with a thousand different things.
It doesn’t show its face openly and announce itself: “Hello! I’m nihilism!” Rather, it’s an absence of something – or, a presence of nothing. Meaninglessness rarely takes the form of folks describing themselves as nihilists. It looks more like pleasant distractions that soon transform into bigger diversions which eventually morph into consuming obsessions. These obsessions are momentary, disconnected, unanchored, and unimportant. What is important is their job, which is to keep us distracted. They congeal into a steady, unceasing undercurrent, ferrying our attention from one immediate pleasure to the next, one distraction to another, with no larger direction or end in sight. All the while, there’s a sense that somewhere, something vital has gone wrong or missing.
Meaninglessness is an invisible, intangible, underlying but well-hidden culprit behind many of our ailments: the addictions, suicides, general unhappiness, and so on. While it’s hard to capture with mathematical precision, at least some of our malaise seems rooted in the lack of a good answer to the “what’s the point?” question. Maybe quite a lot.
It’s not that modern life offers no “answers” here.
Quite the opposite: it offers thousands of answers, relentlessly, chaotically, with trumpets blaring and lights flashing. And most of those, we often discover, are existential junk-food – cotton candy and cream puffs of the soul.
This leads to a sense that, despite thousands of conveniences, a dominant feature of modern life is a profound lack of vision. (At least for some folks.) “Life” is: eat, sleep, work, repeat, and eventually die. And that’s it. Within this, most of the modern world seems designed more to strip-mine our souls than help us flourish. We often find ourselves surrounded by things that have been deliberately engineered to be addictive, bred solely to consume as much of our time and vitality as possible. Our natural instincts get studied, cultivated, harvested, and eventually channeled toward things that create profit or power for others – that sometimes give us what we think we want, but leave us feeling emptier. People become a process.
Not that we aren’t also encouraged to “live life to the fullest,” at least as a slogan. But we often define that “fullest life” in the most cosmetic terms. We often describe “The American Dream” as a house, literally, as if the goal of life was a pile of paint and wood. Nothing against houses, of course, but it’s an entirely different thing to define that as The Goal, the ultimate end, the point of it all. Doing this implicitly defines us as no more than mammals with nests. The tacit message in much of this is, "Be satisfied with idle pleasures and creature comforts. And if you aren't, then there's probably something wrong with your brain chemistry, and here's a pill for that.” All of which transforms genuine spiritual longing into a disease.
There’s something much bigger going on here. How are we simultaneously better and worse off? Why are we more materially prosperous than we’ve ever been, yet less happy? Does Dorian Gray capture our entire age – brilliant, beautiful and glamorous on the outside, rotting away on the inside? How are we more connected than we’ve ever been, supposedly, yet suffering through an “epidemic” of loneliness?
In short, how did we get here?
We could line up several usual suspects pretty easily.
For example, distractions have become weaponized. Much of our waking life is spent surrounded by blinking, interrupting, faux-alarming things, all clamoring for us to pay in our most valuable currency, our attention. This whole scene of spell-casting seem to be corroding our minds as well as our relationships.
Another suspect in the lineup is simply anything that drains you of meaning. Heroin makes everything meaningless that isn’t heroin. Plenty of other things have the same effect, but are just more subtle about it.
Another is a certain style of thinking that’s as flawed as it is popular. We can call it “toxic reductionism” or “nothing-but”-ism. It’s the perspective that we humans are “nothing but” brain chemicals or atoms or bags of genes, for example. It’s flawed not because it’s entirely false, but because it’s incomplete, overly applied and misleading. Yes, atoms, genes, and brain chemicals are part of us. But that simply doesn’t tell the whole story. These words, for example, that you’re reading right now, could be described as “nothing but” a bunch of marks on a white page, or a mere jumble of pixels, or “nothing but” letters. But they also mean something, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading them right now. “Reading” isn’t some bizarre, imaginary superstition. Yet when we talk about ourselves, we often insist we’re the equivalent of “nothing but” letters, and “reading” doesn’t actually exist.
Yet another is our work. Farmers, for example, create tangible products they can easily take pride in. But today, there are fewer farmers, in more ways than one. Instead, we’re often cast as assembly line workers, telemarketers, financial analysts, etc. This can all be necessary, important, and ennobling work, of course. Or it can also reduce us to tiny cogs performing some minor function in an impersonal, lumbering, colossal machine that doesn’t know or care about us except to replace us when we get squeaky. Even farms have become more industrialized and dehumanized.
These are just a few possible causes of disenchantment that lie within arm’s reach. But in some ways, we’re still scratching at the surface.
If we dig deeper and follow the trail of clues, we find that they lead us into deeper waters.
Meaninglessness on a widespread scale seems to be a modern phenomenon, as many thinkers (Becker, Frankl, Weber, May and others) have noted.
Yet on a smaller scale, it’s nothing new under the sun. Kierkegaard often gets credited as the first existentialist, yet asking “what’s the point?” could take us back to Hamlet, or further to the Bhagavad Gita (Arjuna dropping his bow on the battlefield: “I will not fight”) or Ecclesiastes (“all is vanity.”) But if the problem itself is thousands of years old, why is it so much more widespread today?
Let’s try to get a Big Picture, ten-thousand foot view.
Maybe we’re actually living through “The Death of God.”
Maybe we’re experiencing, right now, what Nietzsche was warning us about.
To be clear, as we’ve covered here: “God is dead” doesn’t mean that a bearded sky-Santa dropped a toaster in his celestial hot tub. When Nietzsche first popularized the phrase a century and a half or so ago, he wasn’t simply declaring that “atheism is right!” It was an observation about us. We don’t believe the way we used to. It’s something both religious authorities and social scientists agree on, whether they reference a decline in religious activity15, a rise in “Nones,”16 or a “Post-Christian Society.”
Major religions used to act as immune systems against toxic nihilism – at least when they were competent and doing their job. They offered generally clear answers that generally kept angst lurking outside the city walls. Sometimes they would shove that medicine down your throat, of course, whether you wanted it or not. But that medicine, despite its side effects, was at least partly effective in that respect.
Religions define an ethos and a mythos – how to live and why – that most folks understood and at least tried, on good days, to live up to. Dissolving a mythos and ethos translates into an erosion of common, agreed-upon frames of reference, which then leads to everyone being on different pages about everything and not agreeing on anything. (Then add social media to the mix, so everyone who disagrees can get in each others’ faces about it. Good times.)
This all seems to be part of what Walter Truett Anderson meant when he said “we do not comprehend what a stunning – and yet still incomplete – upheaval of thought has occurred in the recent historical past.”17 This “upheaval of thought” has washed through not only society, but entire intellectual disciplines like a tsunami. This movement seems to have shifted the landscape in several ways: an abandonment of tradition (“we used to do it the old way, now let’s try it this new way”), a change in authority (“we used to trust X; now we trust Y”), and a fragmentation of a whole into parts (“X used to all fit together into one whole; now none of it fits together,”) to name a few.
The “change in authority” has been from religion to science.
Science, over the past few hundred years, has been gaining ground as “the authority to trust,” even on important personal matters. This transition has been highly visible in some ways and invisible in others.
Meanwhile, (to paint with some very broad brush strokes) philosophy and theology, with notable exceptions, often seem to have been busy neutering themselves and rendering themselves irrelevant. Theology has often backpedaled into one of two directions (as described by thinkers like Ross Douthat, Daniel Mahoney, Karen Armstrong, and others.) One side offers a soft, feel-good buffet of platitudes encouraging folks to do things like be nice to each other. The other takes harder, more fundamentalist stances that, among other things, easily alienate outsiders. Modern academic philosophy, in the meantime, seems miles away from the battlefield, wandering the countryside, lost in a haze of word analysis.
Science, meanwhile, faced with big shoes to fill, morphs into scientism with disconcerting ease. It often then addresses the Big Questions of life using methods that work well for physics, chemistry and math. And when it tackles the “meaning” question in this way, unsurprisingly, it often finds no answer. Which is why many authorities today give us the answer that “there is no point.”
Of course, this analysis paints with a broad brush, perhaps unfairly. But this predicament doesn't call for endless nuance.
Because the effects of all this are dramatic.
If "The Death of God" defines as mere animals – intelligent animals, to be sure, but just critters nonetheless – this limits our scope and hope for happiness, quite literally, to creature comforts.
And what are "creature comforts"? Well, the usual suspects: wealth, fame, status, security, pleasures, power, and basic variations of these. These are ambitions we all share, to some degree, with squirrels, armadillos, platypuses, and various other critters, as evolutionary psychologists remind us (though usually more politely.) They’re the pleasures often tasked with outweighing the pains life serves us.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these, arguably. And they often seem to work well enough, at least when we’re young and naïve. But the trouble comes when they just aren't enough.
And we often discover, sooner or later, that they aren't.
Pleasures age, and sometimes not well.
Fame, for example, usually seems like a good thing only to those who don’t have it. Crowds are fickle, and basing your happiness on fickle things seems like a flawed strategy from the start. As we live and experience more, pleasures often wear thin, lose their punch, and sometimes expire completely. Especially when they’re framed by our looming mortality - when the skull grins at the banquet - they hollow out and reveal themselves to be utterly empty. It’s a simple dynamic: things are fun at first. But then we get used to them. Then we get tired of them. And when things just aren’t as fun as they used to be, we’re left dissatisfied, and looking for something more.
And if there is no "something more" - if there are no newer, higher pleasures to move on to, life can become profoundly dissatisfying. If there’s no vision of life beyond creature comforts, and creature comforts aren’t enough to sustain us through the pains life deals us, then we can easily find ourselves out of answers. We aren’t so easily amused anymore, and all life seems to offer is idle amusements. We can try desperately to recapture the old magic - the Romantic solution, the fuel of youth-obsession in the no-longer-young - but even this route often leads to a dead-end and starts to seem silly. Even “higher” endeavors – art, and the pursuit of knowledge, for example - can become either an expression or glorification of the same old creature comforts, or some kind of ancillary, inconsequential pursuit that seemed amusing a while ago, but isn’t anymore.
This all sets us up for an existential hamster wheel. 1) A creature comfort fails to fulfill us. 2) We realize we want something more. 3) We decide the reason why we aren't fulfilled is because we just don't have enough creature comforts. 4) We decide to search for more, newer, better creature comforts. 5) Return to Step 1.
This frantic cycle feeds and reinforces itself. When this quest for creature comforts takes center stage and becomes the prime directive, we set ourselves on a track for either 1) various addictions as a frantic thirst for "more," or 2) a hopeless resignation that idle amusements are all we can hope for. Those can seem like our only two options.
Psychology, at this point, sometimes offers us a few other options.
These days, psychology is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. While many heroic individuals in the field do heroic work, struggling to solve seemingly impossible problems in seemingly impossible circumstances, the field itself isn’t exactly famous for mathematical rigor.
Some might diagnose childhood traumas as the problem, and recommend years of expensive therapy. Others might say the problem is self-esteem, and a big dose of flattery should help. Others might declare that the problem is any number of various disorders that are really real, they insist, and not just made-up categories for things they don’t really understand, and aren't just loading folks down with new piles of things to worry about. Some say we should just talk to ourselves more skillfully. Others might diagnose that the problem is brain chemistry, and can be fixed with the right pills.
Laser-like precision here, this isn’t.
All of this, to be fair, can, and has, helped some folks, in some ways, sometimes. And yet the real problem, at least in some cases, might also be something entirely different. The core problem, at least for some, might be that each of us is trapped in the body of a dying animal, has a due date for a dirt nap, is on death row without a prison cell.
And that bugs us.
Angst, in other words, makes us unsettled. Distractions from that unsettledness are temporary, at best, and sometimes make it worse. Idle pleasures don’t seem to satisfy us for long, yet that’s all that modern life often seems to offer us. Life is short, but at least water-skiing squirrel videos help us pass the time.
All of it can make things start to look a bit absurd.
Which brings us to the existentialists.
The existential philosophers often step in here, and they at least understand the problem, which is a step up in most cases. They even offer solutions. But those solutions are usually some variation of this: “life itself is meaningless, but you can make it meaningful.” In Frankl’s words: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life: and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life…”
Or to rephrase slightly:
You: “What is the meaning of life?”
Life: “What’s the meaning of you?”
This summary doesn’t represent the entirely of the matter (especially Frankl and others, who had plenty more to say about all this.) But this form is what seems to have become hugely popular recently. And for good reasons: after all, it’s interesting, it’s challenging without shoving answers down your throat, it leaves you plenty of room to have fun and do what you want, and most importantly, it usually doesn’t offend anyone.
On the surface, this answer seems fine for some.
But underneath, it suffers from some serious flaws.
One key problem is that it places the burden of the task entirely on the shoulders of the individual. It basically ducks the question, hot-potato style, and says, “no, you answer it.” Which for many, is a welcome change: instead of having some prepackaged, shrink-wrapped answer forced onto you, it gives you a say. Which seems empowering, and feels good, at least at first.
But the implication is that the task is easy. It frames the problem by radically oversimplifying it. It redefines meaning as solely finding something to get you out of bed in the morning. The answer to the meaning of life, then, becomes simple: “Get a hobby.” In other words, “Just find something that you enjoy, and do it. What’s the problem?”
“The problem” is that this places a crushing strain on our “hobbies” and our “enjoyments.” Whatever we use to answer this question – our pleasures, our work, our children, a cause of some sort – is being tasked with the burden of being The Answer, as being “the point of it all.” Which is a huge burden that they don’t seem designed to carry.
Again, this approach works fine sometimes, for some folks, for a while.
Yet that arrangement can also throw things out of whack.
Asking certain people or situations to serve as The Answer – as the planetary atmosphere that defends us against the cold vacuum of emptiness of outer space – can sometimes, in strange ways, thrust the whole lot of it into a room full of funhouse mirrors. It suddenly becomes easy to lose a sense of proportion. Which can translate into, for example, someone attacking a Little League coach for not playing a child enough, or a teacher for giving an “B.” If your job means everything, what happens if you lose it? If pleasures are the point, what happens when they lose the thrill?
Even if certain things and people in our lives actually are perfect in their own ways, when we cast them in the role of “The Answer” to our struggles against the relentless trials of life, then we’re passing this burden on to them. And in doing this, maybe we’re assigning them roles they can’t fill, and were never supposed to. Maybe a job is just a job, a pleasure is just a pleasure, a cause is just a cause. It’s not that, and also the point of it all. Pretending otherwise might drive us crazy.
All of this underscores how the existentialist solution might severely underestimate the difficulty of the task. The task of finding answers that hold up against the trials and challenges of life isn’t quite the cake walk it’s often made out to be.
This all leads us to a strange predicament.
All too often, the individual today, confronting the raw horror of life, has been stripped of the spiritual, intellectual and emotional tools to defend against it, and stands vulnerable. Science, religion, psychology, theology, philosophy and art often fail to provide us the kind of answer we need. More often, they clip our wings and then tell us to fly.
But they do offer us other things instead. Entertainment offers us mild distractions from it. Jobs can keep us too busy to think about it. Vacations and weekends offer temporary escapes from it. Alcohol offers take the edge off it. Harder stuff can lead to crippling, costly ways to try to bury it. Science and technology can help us suffer through it a bit more comfortably, like rescuing us from the stress of actually using our hands to grab towels, for example.
But none of these really solve the problem at the core. They blunt it, numb us to it, maybe help us forget about it for a while. But they don’t solve it.
So, is there a way out of this predicament?
Is a credible answer to the meaning question really possible, without flinching from the brutal realities of old age, sickness, death, and the limits of human knowledge?
Several routes do seem possible. (Whether we’ll take them or not is a different matter.) If we’ve worked ourselves into certain problems, we should be able to work ourselves out of them.
A witty slogan or clever new rallying cry isn’t the solution here. Meaning isn’t a problem that can be solved by mere information. It’s not like a math problem that can be solved by peeking at the answer in the back of the book. We have to show our work. The answer here isn’t a mere piece of data that can be passed around and shared. It’s deeply personal. It’s more like learning to dance. It’s not a mechanical problem where all inquiries converge on a single, universally accessible solution.
But this doesn’t mean we each have to do it entirely alone, starting from scratch, or reinvent the wheel. Learning to dance is personal, too, but there are plenty of dance teachers.
If older solutions to the meaning problem have been deconstructed, leaving a nihilistic vacuum, maybe we can throw that corrosive acid back in the other direction, toward deconstructing meaninglessness itself. There's a great deal we could explore further here.
Commonsense answers can also lie in the direction of strengthening our emotional, intellectual, and existential defenses by our own efforts. This entails reversing our natural, default state of denial: deliberately taking a full, open-eyed, unflinching view of all the toughest experiences life can subject us to, and seeking out anything and everything we can that can help us overcome them. In other words, setting out on a philosophical expedition to slay existential dragons.
Mapping our way out of our current morass might also require some rethinking of our earlier assumptions.
If we’ve wandered off course, retracing our steps can help us find the trail again.
One wrong turn may well have been categorically rejecting all forms of spirituality. Many folks have gone full-atheist, soft-atheist, or apatheist, having decided that spirituality is typically a fruitless exploration of either insanity or boredom. But that might be throwing a lot of babies out with a lot of bathwater. There’s a huge amount of misunderstanding, bias, and just bad communication in these areas – toxic side effects of the information age. But sane, lunacy-free, no-nonsense approaches that embrace legitimate reason, science, and common sense are out there. The tricky part is seeking them out.
This can all become something like a personal quest each one of us can undertake. The search for meaning itself can become a meaningful enterprise. For anyone who lacks a satisfying answer to the “what’s the point?” question, a conscious, active, deliberate search for it isn’t a terrible idea.
By design, life seems geared to offer us an endless supply of tepid pleasures, lukewarm amusements and existential consolation prizes. They don’t fulfill us as much as they numb us to our lack of fulfillment. Reaching beyond them – for something that casts our personal life story within a greater context – isn’t easy.
The challenge is to reach anyway.
Making our own life itself into a work of art is no small task. There's no shortage of drama in the world. Perhaps part of a great but worthy struggle should be finding our place in it, where we can offer our allegiance to, what role we might fill perfectly, even if that requires some digging. As Dostoyevsky said: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”
The treasure we seek in this “quest” is a game worth playing, a fight worth fighting, a mission worth sacrificing for.
We all struggle, suffer, and die, but the trick lies in who or what is worth struggling, suffering and dying for.
It’s a quest each of us is engaged in, already. The only question is how much of ourselves we put into it.
And who knows? We might look back one day, and wish we had given it no less than everything.
Also: “My argument is that the U.S. is suffering an epidemic of addiction, and that these addictions are leaving a rising portion of American society unhappy and a rising number clinically depressed.”
2 The suicide rate has increased more than 30 percent in half of U.S. states since 1999.
5 Rates of happiness are down:
6 Antianxiety and antidepressant medications are up: U.S. Antidepressant Use Jumps 65% in 15 Years, from 7.7% in 199-2002 to 12/7% in 2011-2015.
Antidepressants are the most prescribed drugs in the U.S.
9 One study found that ADHD diagnois rates increased 30 percent in eight years. The percent of very young children (ages two to five) who were diagnose with ADHD increased by over 50 percent between 2007/2008 and 2011/2012.
This is happening even among teenagers:
13.Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)
14 Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, New York, HarperCollins, 1980), 419.
17 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1990), xii.