I would like to, if I may, begin this series by starting at the very beginning of all things (according to some): The Book of Genesis. As many of you will already know, according to the Biblical story, God created the world and the universe in seven days (but resting on the seventh), and from the hand of God sprung the human race and all other life forms. God’s first two humans, Adam and Eve, were placed in the wonderful Utopia of Eden. I’m sure many of you know what follows: Adam and Eve ate fruit from the forbidden tree, after caving in to the temptation of the Serpent. They did, as you could probably imagine, enjoy the fruit. It was, as pointed out by God in the Bible, the most succulent and delicious fruit in the entire garden. However, despite its luxurious taste, eating it came at a cost – the cost of unleashing pain, sin and suffering upon the entire human race, forever and always.
If you do not take kindly to religious stories, then I may be able to tempt you with the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien. (For those of you who have not read The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings, I will warn you that this paragraph contains “spoilers”). In The Hobbit, a young hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins wins a magical ring from the creature Gollum in a game of riddles. Over the years, thanks to the powerful spell of the magical One Ring, Bilbo begins to wither and feel “stretched”. When the time comes for him give up the ring he does, at first, refuse bluntly. The spell of the ring, despite tearing a hole within him, makes him feel good, powerful and can be used as a quick escape from his fellow Hobbits (who Bilbo considers to be an annoyance). But when Bilbo finally gives up the ring – with a bit of help from his old friend Gandalf – he goes on to live a tranquil life in the company of Elves. Perhaps a more striking example from the world of Tolkien is the story of Isildur, who was handed the chance to destroy the ring many years before Bilbo was even born, ridding the world of its evil before it could do any further harm. But instead Isildur gave in to temptation – he thought of only himself in the present, not himself in the long-term, or the rest of Middle-Earth for centuries to come.
I will now move away from the tales of religion and fantasy fiction, and enter the realm of real life. Picture, if you will, and twenty-five-year-old female. She is unemployed by mere choice, and spends most of her time sat on her sofa smoking cannabis, whilst watching daytime television. This is a very real scenario for some, and I’m sure that we all know somebody who lives a similar, if not mirrored, lifestyle to the semi-fictional person I have just described. She could, of course, logically justify her lifestyle: she doesn’t have to work, so she can just sit around all day relaxing, doing what she enjoys, living responsibility free on her regular state benefit. The cannabis she smokes leaves her relaxed, it makes her feel happy. But, the real question, which is also raised in the two examples given above, is what does this do for her life and the life of others as she goes on, as she ages?
Some of you may have already noticed, but there is a common theme running throughout the given examples. Some might say we have stumbled upon an Archetype. Stories of people doing long-term harm to both themselves and others in exchange for quick and often sensory pleasures have existed within our societies for thousands of years. It’s here, I believe, that we discover the answer to the first part of the titles question (what is meaning?). Meaning, in the sense of having meaning in your actions and life, is doing something that is not only good for yourself, but good for others too. But more specifically, it is doing those things to cause good in the long-term, not just the short. As demonstrated in the above examples, it is easy to sacrifice long-term prosperity and meaning for extremely short-lived feelings of positivity and pleasure. To a lot of us, it may seem logical to chase as many of these highs as we can, and just hope that they last and recycle themselves enough times so you can go to the grave a happy man. But as the wisdom of our elders teach us, this is simply not the case. Many middle-aged and elderly people – and even some young people – will openly tell you that they regret the time they spent “fooling around”. It would, if Adam and Eve were to take greater responsibility and look for deeper meaning in their actions, have been wise of them to resist the Serpents temptation, and refused to have eaten the fruit in order to blockade the terrorising rage of their creator, and therefore saving themselves and their descendants from the pain of suffering. The same applies with Isildur – had he cast the ring into Mount Doom, destroying it once and for all, he would have saved millions of lives, including his own. So, what do these fictional characters, and real people, all from completely different worlds, have in common? It’s extremely simple: they all made the common mistake of exchanging long-term peace and joy for instant and short-lived pleasure.
Now that I have explained what I believe to be the definition of meaning – in the sense of having a meaningful life – we must now ask the second given question: Is our society meaningless? Firstly, and above all, it is important to understand that the title of this series is, in fact, bogus. When I say “finding meaning in a meaningless society”, what I really mean is finding meaning within yourself and your own personal life, whilst living in a meaningless society. But, nonetheless, the content of our society, so to speak, is more likely to lead you towards the “short-term pleasure” path, rather than the pursuit of meaning. Also, if we all stride to live a life of meaning, then our societies too would look, to some extent, different. So, what are these traps laid out by our own society?
We must begin with ideology. Practically all of us are invested in an ideology for one reason or another. Whether you’re a Marxist, a Fascist, a Liberal, a Conservative, a Humanist or a Christian, you have an ideology. For many, their ideology is relatively harmless. For some, admittedly, it may even give them some purpose and, dare I say, meaning in their lives. It is not so much the political allegiances or set of religious beliefs of your ordinary man/woman that causes you and others harm, rather the arena in which these ideas manifest and clash (society). It would be too much for me to ask every individual to shred their ideology, and I would even argue, to a huge extent, that having a set of fixed beliefs is simply part of being a modern and evolved human. However, there is one huge problem with ideologies: they are fixed ideas, and for many, causes people to refuse to accept questions or criticisms of their beliefs without becoming defensive or upset, let alone giving them the openness to change their beliefs. Truth is key to finding the meaning in your life, as in order to discover what is good for both you and others, you must be open ears to all sides of the spectrum. In other words, we all must accept that we get things wrong in order to better ourselves and our society, no matter how attached we are to a certain set of beliefs.
Perhaps one of the most obvious threats to finding “deeper meaning” (a rather hippyish phrase, I must admit), would be the current economy of consumerism. We know, or at least those of us who follow economics know, that the success of an economy, and to some extent a society, is measured by economic growth. Of course, we should be very thankful that we live in such a rich and vibrant country, but it feels as though many of us are falling into a trap. The craving of clothes, superb mobile phones, jewellery, and many other material things, is at the forefront of most of our lives; it’s what makes the economy tick. This is not to say that I do not enjoy indulging myself in such things from time to time, it would be hypocritical of anybody to say they don’t. However, what one owns, particularly when it comes to products branded by a simple logo or name, dominates and drives a huge section of our society. Material possessions and money, for many people, are easily used as a short-term stimulus (like the One Ring or the forbidden fruit).
The rise in Liberalism has also had, in many aspects, a negative effect within our societies here in the West. This is not to say that it is a bad thing (I would consider myself a Classical Liberal, if I were forced to put a label on myself); I would much rather live in our Liberal society rather than, say, Saudi Arabia; and I am a passionate believer in freedom and personal responsibility, which Liberalism opens up for us. However, it is vital for us all to remember that Liberalism does not mean discarding all responsibility for both yourself and others, and I feel as though some use Liberalism as an excuse to do this. Although we have the freedom to sit around all day doing nothing, spend hours doing drugs, refuse to work, abandon your children or partner, does not automatically mean that that is the right thing to do.
I could, if I really wanted to rant (which is tempting), write paragraph upon paragraph of what I think is wrong with our society. However, I will not burden you with such a painful course of reading. This is mainly because finding meaning within our society has more to do with yourself than it does with those around you. Yes, as I have pointed out, there are a lot of material comforts, time wasting and instinctive actions to achieve short-term pleasure within our lives, but that does not mean you have to abide by the ways of others.
So, in short, to answer the question of is our society meaningless?; yes, our society is meaningless… But, that does not mean life is and that your own life must be. In this series I will be looking at unavoidable aspects and stages of every human’s life, from growing up to stabilising oneself. It is important to realise and remember that this isn’t, and never will be, a moral guidebook. In fact, this series has absolutely nothing to do with morality, and I have never believed for one second that I, or anybody else for that matter, is in the position to give advice on morals and ethics. It is not my intention to demonstrate how people should live their lives, but rather to express ways in which I believe can help us in our quest for a meaningful life (something we all want, I would hope).
To conclude Part 1 of this series, I would just like to expand on the importance of your own individuality. In the words of the great Carl Jung (the father of Analytical Psychology) – someone who will be getting another mention in this series later on – “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”. No matter what your position in life may be, there are always ways in which we can strive to better ourselves, and by bettering yourself you naturally better those around you by sheer influence, and from that will spring the meaning of your life. As the old saying goes “charity begins at home, but does not end there”, and in this case, each individual is their own “home”, and fixing your home will only have a positive effect on the whole neighbourhood.