To Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Stop Searching

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, two friends, Vladimir and Estragon, endlessly wait by a tree in the moonlight for the arrival of someone they both claim to know but neither would recognize – someone named Godot. While they wait, they talk about the Gospels, suicide, the past and the future. They exchange shoes and hats. They contemplate leaving. Most of all, they try to make sense of the situation. But doing so – trying to understand and control their circumstances – leads to anxiety. It is the attempt to make sense of the absurd that spells their demise.   

Like most postmodern literature it’s unclear what, exactly, Waiting for Godot is about. But that’s the point. You create meaning for yourself. The potential concern is that, while inherent meaning might exist in the world, human beings will always struggle to find it. This was Vladimir and Estragon’s problem, and Beckett cleverly subjects the audience to a similar fate. With so much to interpret, we inevitably interpret incorrectly, and nihilism sets in. 

Meaning, and the struggle to find it, is not just subject matter for the playwright or author. It affects most of us, especially those in the West living in the so-called secular age. According to the philosopher Roman Krznaric, “never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs.” In other words, we’re spending our lives searching for meaning – waiting for our Godot – and failing.  

The problem, paradoxically, is just that: we’re searching. Consider a paper by the psychologist Iris Mauss and three colleagues. They discovered over the course of two experiments that participants who sought happiness were less happy than participants in a control group. The idea is the more we value something, the more likely we will be disappointed, even when we obtain what we’re searching for. By analogy, imagine an academically minded student who considers anything lower than perfection a disappointment. Despite above average marks, he will believe himself a failure. The lesson here is not to lower expectations but to not emphasize only one variable. When we fail to do that we get caught in a Zeno’s paradox of sorts – no matter how hard we try, we’ll never arrive at our destination.  

The Declaration of Independence popularized the term “the pursuit of Happiness”, although the original unalienable rights were “Life, Liberty and Property.” The reason Jefferson and his reviewers switched “Property” to the axiomatic “pursuit of Happiness” is somewhat enigmatic, but we know Jefferson admired the Roman poet Lucretius, which provides a hint.

Lucretius is the author of On The Nature of Things, a poem that draws on Epicureanism to advocate, among other things, that life should be about the enhancement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Jefferson owned at least five copies of On The Nature of Things, and when asked about his life’s philosophy, he wrote, “I am an Epicurean.” Critically, Lucretius (and Epicurus before him) was not suggesting we live a life of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll; he knew that type of pleasure was fleeting. Instead, the Roman wordsmith was concerned with something deeper: the pleasure one receives from friendship, community and living modestly. Moderation was a virtue for him.  

We’ve largely misinterpreted Jefferson’s axiom in this regard. Conceived as a quest for pleasure, we mistakenly placed happiness outside of the body, spawning the delusion that we must search for it – as if it was a certain distance away. So we spend money, apply for jobs, get degrees, do drugs and go on dates in the name of happiness, even though, as we’ve seen, doing so is a path to unhappiness. When happiness is external, it is elusive; we end up waiting around believing, rather foolishly, that it will arrive.

And when it doesn’t we start asking questions like: “What is the meaning of life?” Despite its ostensible attachment to ancient Greek philosophers, this question is a modern one. This is because for most of Western history, religion was the answer; it allowed followers to exist without questioning their existence. It was only when Enlightenment thinkers replaced God with reason, Nietzsche killed God, and the industrial revolution took hold, that we started searching for meaning (only when we felt alienated).  

Now we are faced with the existential burden of having to define our existence on our own terms. Yet, if Western culture in the twentieth century is read as a series of responses to the death of God, then I can’t think of any good ones so far. In fact, we’ve probably spent more time observing and critiquing our nihilism than fixing it. Think about Gatsby’s quixotic quest for success, David Foster Wallace’s interest in the “banal platitudes” of adult life, and the Sisyphean lives of Jim Halpert (The Office), Peter Gibbons (Office Space) and Lester Burnham (American Beauty). Is there any way to live a life of pleasure like Epicurus and Lucretius imagined? Can we find meaning in a secular age? 

In the book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly suggest that sports is one answer, it “may be the place in contemporary life where Americans find sacred community most easily.” NYU professor Jonathan Haidt makes similar arguments, citing raves and political rallies as well as sports as mediums where humans feel part of a collective. Beyond these secular examples, I struggle to think of more, even though I’m sure many exist.

The problem, I should clarify, is not necessarily that we’re lacking meaning. The literature on cognitive biases suggests we are facing the opposite problem: we’re drowning in meaning. We see patterns that don’t exist, faces in the clouds, believe in essences, and stereotype. We cannot not find meaning. The problem is we struggle to find meaningful meaning. We need something – a team, a band, or a politician – to filter our beliefs and provide some coherence to our worldview, even if it that worldview is an illusionary one. Otherwise we’re lost.

Some sixty years after Waiting for Godot we know that the search for happiness and meaning is self-defeating: if you’re looking for either, you’ve already failed. Yet, I can’t help but think that we’ll react to this reality by simply waiting longer. 

Image via Ikerlaes/Shuttershock

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