Finding meaning and purpose
in a rapidly changing world,
by Contributing Editor
There are many paths to enlightenment -- finding meaning and purpose in life. Each of us has to find the path that is right for us. In this essay I discuss one path: the one I have chosen to follow. I will call it: "The path of community devotion and spiritual sympathy."
In an article on the Alternet website 1 in 2017-FEB, Conor Lynch reminded us of the ideas of Erich Fromm and a book he wrote in 1941 titled: "Escape from Freedom." 2
His thoughts intrigued me so I got a reprint copy through my local library system. it was published in 1969.
In the article Lynch says:
"Fromm posits that industrialization and the rise of liberalism resulted in the 'complete emergence' of the individual (i.e., 'individuation'), along with newfound freedom, but also upended 'primary ties' that had once provided men and women with 'security and a feeling of belonging and of being rooted somewhere.'
"In other words: modernization freed man from traditional authorities that had greatly limited him, but also provided him with security and meaning in life."
As children we enter the world in a state of "oneness", of no boundaries. We don't distinguish between our self and others or other parts of our environment. As we grow we begin to discover "Me" -- what Fromm calls a process of individuation.
As an example my Dad liked to report that when I was still quite small he was trying to get me to eat something I thought was yucky (brocolli or liver or some such substance!) and he said try it, you will like it and I asked: "Are you Daddy or are you Susan." I had discovered my "Me"! I was a separate entity from him with my own likes and dislikes.
Fromm points out that during this process of individuation we must also have a corresponding growth of self. I think by growth he means expansion of self. We go from the state of oneness, to a state of Me then to what I call a "state of We," -- an expanded state of oneness where we recognize and celebrate the individuality and uniqueness of each person while recognizing that we are all parts of one whole.
On Page 35 Fromm says:
"If the process of the development of mankind had been harmonious, if it had followed a certain plan, then both sides of the development -- the growing strength and the growing individuation -- would have been exactly balanced. As it is, the history of mankind is one of conflict and strife. Each step in the direction of growing individuation threatened people with new insecurities." 2
As we grow in individuation, we severe old ties which can leave us cut off, insecure, frightened with uncertainty about the meaning and purpose of our life until we expand ourselves, forge new ties, develop a new identity, and gain the security and self-confidence needed to reach our full potential as a human being.
If conditions in society get in our way, Fromm says:
"However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends, do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality...while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction." 2
This reminded me of an accusation frequently aimed at Atheists, that "... without God, the Atheist has nothing -- no hope, no purpose no ethics, no morality."
I wrote an essay about this during 2009 titled: "Misperceptions about Atheists." I wrote that this perception:
"... couldn't be further from the truth. Knowledge about our world and our selves, frees us from fear, superstition and "hate" of the other that ignorance can spawn. The Atheist, like the person who follows a religion, can have everything if they are willing to work for it."
I now realize that the words I used "willing to work for it" are the key. Between what Erich Fromm says in his book and what Eric Hoffer says in his book "The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," 3 I now understand as Eric Hoffer puts it in Page 142:
"However, the freedom the masses crave is not the freedom of self-expression and self realization, but the freedom from the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence."
I would add they seek freedom from what THEY SEE AS the intolerable burden of an autonomous existence. I don't see an autonomous existence as a burden. For me it is liberating, the ultimate high!
The autonomous, self-assured, self-directed, self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-controlled, self-sufficient individual must with his own resources find meaning and purpose in his or her life. This means they will have to "work for it"; it won't be given to them; there are no guarantees they will find it. Some find the insecurity not worth it and willingly turn themselves over to the control and direction of another, a religious, cult, gang, political leader, or spouse. They willingly submit to despotism to escape the freedom of an autonomous existence.
This is Fromm's explanation for why so many Germans submitted to Hitler and Nazism, and what Lynch thinks might be happening now with the masses in the U.S. submitting themselves to President Trump and his agenda. Humans will seek relief from this kind of freedom by submitting to some sort of totalitarian relationship that promises relief from uncertainty at the price of his freedom.
For the person like me who has found their way, their place and purpose and meaning in life, the feeling of success is priceless. The struggle wasn't easy. I did have support from some family members and friends. I also faced bullying -- and still face bullying -- from those who didn't approve of my speaking up for the Atheist and the secularist or the members of the LGBT community or for women who get abortions or for those of other faith traditions. I think what bothered the bullies the most was that I couldn't be bullied. One man even commented that I was so dumb I didn't know when I was being insulted! I replied back that he couldn't insult someone who was bigger than he was.
How people find meaning and purpose:
People find meaning and purpose in their lives in six ways. Through:
- Their work;
- The "stuff" they are able to acquire with the money they earn;
- Their connections with family;
- Their connections with their community (friends, neighbors, business people, etc.); and, for some,
- Their connections to religion or church or the spiritual side of their nature and
- Ecstatic experience that is often, though not always, associated with religion.
The more connections a person has in these six different areas and the higher quality of these connections, the more self-assured, self-directed, self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-controlled, self-sufficient, and self-satisfied with themselves and their life they will be. This seems like a contradiction, a paradox. It is!
Those who are isolated, cut off from some or all of these connections, the lone wolfs, find the least satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, meaning and purpose in life and thus are the ones most likely to cause society and themselves problems.
Those that are members of a very tightly knit, restricted group that has isolated its self from the wider society also find themselves lost and adrift when the realities of the rapidly changing "real" world intrude on their self-imposed isolation. They often strike out viciously, bullying, persecuting those they feel threaten their sense of security and assurity.
Among the six ways that people find meaning and purpose:
- 1: "Work" -- the first item on the list -- gives many of us great satisfaction, pride in ourselves and in a job well done. 'Work" can refer to what we do to earn our living, our paid job. It can also refer to volunteer work--what we do to help others and to our hobbies--what we do for out personal pleasure and enjoyment (participating in sports, in making and/or fixing things, in growing things, in intellectual pursuits not related to our jobs). The more varieties of "work" that we participate in the happier and healthier we will be. When a person finds him or herself out of a paid job, their volunteer activities and hobbies can keep them grounded, active and engaged until they find another paying job. It is also important to note that our volunteer activities and hobbies can be pluses on a resume, they make us more attractive to an employer. These other "work" activities can help us develop and keep our skills and minds sharp, skills that will benefit us and our employer in our paid jobs. They may also help a person have the ability and courage to retrain for a new job when and if their old job becomes obsolete.
- 2: Stuff: Paid work also enables a person to acquire stuff -- to fulfill their American Dreams. There is a downside to this. Some women (and men who don't want to be accused of sexism) become shop-a-holics; some men acquire more and more expensive "toys" (boats, motorcycles, sports cars, guns). For some it is the acquisition of the McMansion in the suburbs, or the membership in the exclusive country club..... Mid-life crises arrive when they realize that the acquisition of "stuff" no longer works for them, it hasn't given them the meaning and purpose in life they were looking for. And for those who lose a job, or find themselves in a low paying job with no hope of advancement they see their American Dreams slip away and with that their meaning and purpose in life.
- 3 & 4: Connections: with family and with our community, friends, neighbors, business and government leaders, workers at our place of employment, etc. The American character has sometimes been described as being strong, self-sufficient, rugged, individuals. But this description isn't entirely true. As people moved west they moved in family groups, often extended family groups (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, parents and siblings). My fathers family moved to Oregon in 1853 in this way. When they arrived at their new destination they settled closely together. They were fully aware that they needed each others help to not only survive but to thrive.
Humans are social animals. Some have described us as herd animals but I think that is a misunderstanding of herd behavior. We are pack animals, like a wolf pack. Our health and well being is dependent upon our membership in a pack, a family or other group. The more connections we have with more groups, the happier we will be, and the greater our understanding of our meaning and purpose in life. If one group lets us down (a new leader or change in ideology may take the group in a direction we are not comfortable with), or we find ourselves through a job loss cut off from a group we depended upon, then our connections with other groups can fill the void.
There are four dangers. One is isolation from any involvement in a group. Two is belonging to a group that has isolated its self, set its self apart from the rest of society. The third danger is depending on a group (or person) solely for your sense so self. Have you ever met a woman for the first time who introduces herself as so and so's wife, or mother, or daughter? her sense of self is tied up with whom she is related to not with her own character of abilities. The fourth danger? When young people started spending more time on social media than in face to face contact with other humans, I expressed concern. I felt they may be developing hundreds of contacts on their face book pages but those contacts were superficial and they were or would be losing the ability to interact meaningfully with others in face-to-face encounters. Social isolation can come from being cut off completely from social interaction with others, BUT it can also come when all of one's contacts are superficial.
- 5 & 6: The fifth and sixth areas where people search for (and some though not all) find meaning and purpose in their lives is through a connection to their religion, church or spiritual side of their nature and through ecstatic experience. Unfortunately some seek ecstatic experience -- the high that comes with an adrenaline rush and sexual flush -- in all the wrong places: -- drugs, alcohol, food, sex, extreme sports, rock concerts, and, unfortunately, violence -- verbal and physical -- towards other people and property. They find they have to have more and more or more extreme versions in order to maintain the high and what they seek. Meaning and purpose in life continues to allude them. Some find the high in the fiery sermon of the charismatic preacher or in the incense, flickering candlelight, music and chants of a high mass. Once the church experience wears off, it is back to business as usual, and the meaning and purpose in life continues to allude them as well.
One misunderstanding some Atheists have is about the "spiritual" side of our nature. They deny that we have one!
Many Christians insist that ONLY through a connection with Jesus can people find meaning and purpose in their lives. They quote a passage from John: 14-6 where Jesus is reported to say, "I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me." However, we know that many people have found their way to their conception/understanding of God and their meaning and purpose in life through their non-Christian religion. Though, there are some Christians that deny this is possible.
I don't deny that many have found meaning and purpose in their lives through their religion. I will let them speak for themselves. I can only speak from a secularist's point of view. As I see it many Atheists and many Christians have a misunderstanding of the concept of "spirit". What is it? Our Spirit is the core of who we are as an individual, it is our soul, our essence, our nature. It often shows itself best through our emotions. it isn't a super or supra-natural entity of some sort. someone can be "spiritual" without being religious. One can be happy and content, grounded and fulfilled without having a relationship with a God or Gods or Goddess or Goddesses when the essence, the core of who they are as a human being is happy, healthy, fulfilled, joyfull, full of life (joie de vie). Some define themselves as being Spiritual in the sense that they find a oneness, a unity with what Taoists call the Tao (the way of all things), or Hindus call Brahmin, or New Agers call the "One" and "The All." It is a feeling of oneness with the Universe, with all living things, with all other human beings.
One of my favorite explanations of this connection comes from a passage in a book written by Peggy Pond Church. "The House at Otowi Bridge". On p. 69 she quotes a passage written by Edith Warner. It is her house at the bridge that Church is writing about. For those not familiar with the New Mexico Otowi bridge, it was a bridge across the Rio Grande gorge on the road to the then secret atomic city of Los Alamos. The quote is:
"This is a day when life and the world seem to be standing still -- only time and the river flowing past the mesas. I cannot work. I go out into the sunshine to sit receptively for what there is in this stillness and calm. I am keenly aware that there is something. Just now it seemed to flow in a rhythm around me and then to enter me--something which comes in a hushed inflowing. All of me is still and yet alert, ready to become part of this wave that laps the shore on which I sit. Somehow I have no desire to name it or understand. It is enough that I should feel and be of it in moments such as this. And most of the hatred and ill will, the strained feeling is gone--I know not how."
This is an example of an ecstatic experience without the adrenaline rush or sexual flush!
Being "willing to work for it:"
I said earlier that I realized that the words "willing to work for it" were the key to finding meaning and purpose in life.
I cast the I Ching this morning and came up with #27 Nourishment. There are two aspects of this passage that are important:
First, it tells us to figure out/find what nourishes us than tells us to nourish it. For me this means that if we want to find meaning and purpose in our lives we need to find what nourishes us, what fills us with satisfaction, joy, peace, goodwill, pride, contentment. To do this we must have the opportunity and the will to explore our options, to develop our own particular talents and skills. We must "work"a developing ourselves, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually in order to become the best possible person that we can be. AND it does take "work" to do this. It doesn't come to us simply be joining the right church, or the right group, or finding the right friends or business associates, or finding the perfect mate. We have to "work" at developing our skills and our relationships and our place in the world and then nourish those skills and relationships to keep us fulfilled and content with who we are and with our purpose and meaning in life.
Second, is a statement that "The superior man controls his mouth, what comes out of it and what he puts into it." This reminds me of a Biblical passage Matthew: 15-11 where Jesus is reported to say: "It isn't what one puts into ones mouth that defiles one, it is what comes out of it."
It is all about nourishment. The food we eat, that we put into our mouths, effects (nourishes or harms or defiles) our health and physical well being just as the food we put into our minds, effect (nourishes, or harms or defiles) our intellectual, emotional and spiritual health, and just as the food we put into our life (the work we expend on developing our skills and talents and social relationships) nourishes or harms or defiles our life.
In order to find meaning and purpose in your life whether you are a religious person or a non-religious person, find what nourishes you; then nourish it.
Eventually you may come to realize as I have, that what nourishes me is actually inside of me. It has been here all along. It doesn't lie in relationships (though those relationships are vital to nourishing what is within me). It doesn't lie with the acquisition of stuff (though I enjoy shopping for "treasures" as much as others do, I love the thrill of the hunt for and finding bargains). It doesn't come from my work (now that I am retired it is all volunteer work). It doesn't come from my hobbies (though I get great pleasure out of creating things with my own ingenuity). It doesn't come from ecstatic experience (though I still get a kick out of having one). All of those area are an important part of who I am, but who I am is not dependent on any one of them.
Both Saints and Sages have been trying to get folks to look within themselves for the source of their being for centuries. In the Bible Jesus says in John: 10-30 "The Father and I are one." Literal thinkers read this and see it as his claim to being God, his claim to Divinity. Could it be that he is saying he has found the divinity of God, God's essence, nature, spirit within himself? I mentioned these two different uses of the word Divinity and divinity in the earlier essay "Can ONLY the Cross of Christ heal the wounds in this nation?"
Jesus is also quoted in John 17:20-23: "As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...."
It is this realization that what I was seeking was within me and that what is within me is within and connected to all others and the Universe, that has enabled me to find meaning and purpose in life and to become a happy and content self-actualized, autonomous person -- well mostly content; there is always something more I'd like to do or see or try.
Related essays on this web site that you might find of interest:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Carol Lynch, "Will Americans Submit to Despotism in an Urge to 'Escape from Freedom'? Erich Fromm Saw It Coming," Alternet, 2017-FEB-26, at: http://www.alternet.org/
Erich Fromm, "Escape from Freedom," Open Road Media (Reprinted 2013-MAR). Available in Kindle and in hardcover or mass market paperback (with a different cover). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
It is rated by Amazon.com customers with 4.5 out of 5 stars.
- Eric Hoffer, "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Rated with 4.6 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers. Reviewer Richard Vazquez commented: "The far left and the far right can be indistinguishable from each other from the viewpoint of what it's like to live under them. ... The proof of the thesis lies in the fact that the book, written in the 1950's, was correct in it's predictions over the last sixty five years. This way of thinking helps to envision the results of today's decisions."
- Peggy Pond Church, "The House at Otowi Bridge: The Story of Edith Warner and Los Alamos," University of New Mexico Press, (1973). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. It is rated by Amazon.com customers with 4.6 out of 5 stars.
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Originally posted on: 2017-MAR-13
Author: Susan Humphreys