In Dr. Mattias Desmet’s insightful book The Psychology of Totalitarianism he posits that one of the primary problems of today’s culture is that many people believe they are living meaningless lives. He also cites rampant materialism as the reason. A quote from his book:
Man may not realize it, but his humanity does not really matter, it is nothing essential. His whole existence, his longing and his lust, his romantic lamentations and his most superficial needs, his joy and his sorrow, his doubt and his choices, his anger and unreasonableness, his pleasure and his suffering, his deepest aversion and his most lofty aesthetic appreciations, in short, the entire drama of his existence, can ultimately be reduced to elementary particles that interact according to the laws of mechanics.
This is what materialism does. A material-only universe means that matter is king, and matter is made up of tiny particles that bounce off of each other in a random way and basically are responsible for everything.
And through their random and mindless bouncing they mean nothing. If you live a life where everything that “matters” to you is matter, then you are probably missing the point of life.
I agree with Desmet, and he goes into quite a bit of detail about this idea in his book. I will expound on this concept a bit and say there are basically three things that make human beings believe their life is ultimately, on the whole, meaningless.
- Instant Gratification
- Secularism (or atheism)
Usually, or typically, materialism is focused upon in a person’s work life. The purpose of a life’s work then nearly completely entails the acquisition of “things” in the most efficient manner possible, i.e., the least amount of work for the highest monetary reward. This is not 100% true, but frequently is true in the beginning of a person’s work life.
It seems, from my observation as a psychotherapist working with young adults, that people moving into the work force, or even in University working toward a degree, focus almost entirely on what will get the most money with the least amount of effort, all the way from choosing “bird courses” in school, to picking the work environment they want to enter. Of course there are exceptions to this, i.e., young people who actually do have a passion for a particular field, but often that is not the rule.
The reason the focus is on money is obvious. We all live in a world where value, almost exclusively, is placed on the acquisition of material objects—houses, cars, phones, clothes, jewelry, food, vacations (although vacations are not entirely a material pursuit), high quality medical care, investments, sports, things for the kids (sports, art, camps, lessons) etc.
People do find all these things to be comforting, for a while at least. Of course it is obvious our entire existence, at least in the opulent West, is based on this idea (money to buy things—our culture is ruled by consumerism). All we seem to do is buy things. The more things we have, the better, and the more money we have to buy the things we want, the better.
The evils of materialism sneaks into other aspects of our lives besides acquiring physical things. We view our health in an almost exclusive materialistic view. Little regard in mainstream medicine is given to “mind body healing” (although as a fad many people “think” they are engaged in this sort of paradigm). Health care is a material “cause and effect” system. Keep the bad things out (disease organisms primarily—such as with a mask, or social distancing) and if they just so happen to get in, kill them, or otherwise rid yourself of them—at all costs. God forbid you keep your body healthy enough for it to do the task itself.
There is little, if any, interest in modern medicine as to how the body naturally lives and functions in a holistic way, merged with nature and natural processes of living and eventually dying. There is little interest by the general public in the mystery of life and health, which is largely non-material—energies, spirits, gods, love. Of course there are people who are not materialists…and maybe more people than I know. But largely the meaningless life, in part, is derived from believing in a random cause and effect reality and an effort to control whatever material aspects of our world we can.
Instant gratification is a byproduct of materialism, as is secularism. Materialism is essentially the umbrella that embraces just about everything about a meaningless existence.
We all know about instant gratification, and it isn’t all bad and at its core is rather natural. Human beings want everything they need as quickly, and with as little effort to get, as possible. We were made that way. It is just that in a natural state, such as in caveman times, not very much we wanted was all that easy to get. We were always fighting something to get it, whether it be nature itself, or howler monkeys who were better at climbing trees to get the ripe fruit—not to mention the tribe next door who pierced different parts of their bodies differently and thus were not the same…and thus were enemies. In order to be “instantly” gratified in the most efficient manner, we had to be ambitious and willing to be patient and work hard—or fight hard. However, if what we want is just handed to us, then we lose ambition, get bored quickly, and get very lazy. If it isn’t handed to us, many people put forth only so much effort, and then give up.
That describes today’s world. But only with the easy things that really are not that special, like easy to acquire food (fast), video games, smart phone dopamine hits, social media, pornography. If all we do is lay around and instantly become satiated, like Jabba the Hutt, there is very little opportunity to derive meaning from our existence. We might be sensory-content, but only for a short while.
Many people today, at least the ones that complain about meaningless lives, have little interest in working hard for a payoff tomorrow (well, they may WANT that due to our innate proclivity to be productive humans, but we are unfortunately driven by our unconscious negative complexes, not usually innate proclivities).
It’s the old “marshmallow experiment” which yielded predictable results from immature children, hopefully not so much from mature adults.
I am painting a dismal picture, and please understand I am more than likely not describing you, dear reader, but someone you may know. I am presenting the extremes here, and what I am describing can, and usually does, manifest in “not so clear” ways. A person can actually have a great job they work hard at, and still feel they have a fundamentally meaningless life. Even if you do achieve the goal of supreme materialism, i.e. having all the money you ever dreamed of having, and thus having all the things you dreamed of having, that is still part of the formula for meaninglessness.
The last on our list, secularism, is probably the most controversial. Who needs God and religion? Carl Jung, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist and father of Depth Psychology, said:
The idea of an all-powerful divine Being is present everywhere, unconsciously if not consciously, because it is an archetype. There is in the psyche some superior power, and if it is not consciously a god, it is the “belly” at least, in St. Paul’s words. I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously, for, if we do not, something else is made God, usually something quite inappropriate and stupid such as only an “enlightened” intellect could hatch forth.
That’s about as secular a way to put it as you can get. You don’t have to see it that way though, but if you are a die-hard atheist, or someone who simply gives no credence to a “higher power,” Jung’s advice should be well considered. What is happening now in our culture is a clear example of Jung’s last words in this quote: it is wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously, or else something else is made God, usually something quite inappropriate and stupid…” Uh…yeah…isn’t that what a lot of us have been saying for two years now?
How you establish for yourself this “non-secularism” in your life is your business. Church services, or spiritual study with others, forms community at the very least. It is also a place where a materialist focus, and the desire for instant gratification, can be avoided. It is a good idea. May the force be with you,
So there ya have it. Pretty simple, eh? Well, books could be written on this subject and so they have been, so this article certainly isn’t complete. Think about it though…and see if any of this applies to our current situation. A life with no meaning creates a void that can easily be filled with fear (fear is the hobgoblin that is created by meaninglessness).
And finally from a very wise man indeed:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.
A person living what they believe is a meaningless life will grow from that belief despair and fear—fertile ground for just what we see happening in the world today.
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