Children and Meaning

A good friend wrote me recently. He said that his twelve-year-old son has begun to wonder if life is meaningless and if death ruins the joy of life. This is an intelligent, athletic, handsome young man with loving, highly educated, and economically successful parents, living in a first-world country. Truth be told this young man’s grandfather has recently died and his grandmother is gravely ill. But even absent these tragedies, a question inevitably arises. Why would such a young man be so troubled?

WHY DO WE WANT TO KNOW IF LIFE IS MEANINGFUL?

The question of the meaning of life arises for almost anyone who begins to think. As Camus said, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” The desire to make sense out of life is a primary motivator of human life. As the famous cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz said: “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs.” Thus the question emanates, in part, from a deep wellspring of biological and psychological need; the need to answer the question springs from our nature, reaching in some sense into the genome itself.

The other source for the question is undoubtedly our historical, cultural, social, and family environments. What is happening at this moment in history, culture, society, and family elicit and frames the question of meaning in a certain way. And, given that the question of life’s meaning only became a prominent one in western civilization in the 19th century, it is reasonable to think that there is something about secularism and modernity that has brought the question to the surface.  Philosophers as diverse as Habermas, Nagel, Dworkin, and Charles Taylor all argue that something is missing in the secular world, while religious thinkers as diverse as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and John Fire Lame Deer believe that consumerism, capitalism, and materialism leave many bereft of hope and meaning.

Thus the general answer to a question about human thought and behavior is always some combination of nature and nurture, of a genome in an environment.  Of course, a specific case of an obsession with the question could emerge from psychological maladies like depression or anxiety, although we shouldn’t draw this conclusion too quickly. Asking about meaning is often a mark of an authentic human life, not of a mental disease.

THE ANSWER IS FOUND IN SOMETHING LARGER THAN OURSELVES

I have written at length on this blog and in my book about meaning in human life. There are many ways to derive it, and all sorts of people live what they believe are meaningful lives. But one idea that comes up constantly is to place our lives in a larger context. For example, Bertrand Russell said he overcame the fear of death when he let the walls of his ego recede, and saw himself in a larger context. The things he cared about: truth, beauty, goodness, knowledge, and all the rest would be pursued without him. The historian and philosopher Will Durant suggested something similar:

If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self. If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”

To better understand consider that the meaning of a movie or painting is difficult to discern if you see only a small part of them. If I only see a few moments of the movie or a few brushstrokes of the painting, I can’t understand them as well as if I see the whole thing. Of course, we might see the whole movie or painting and still find them meaningless. But it is somewhat comforting to know that if we saw the entire movie or painting—or the past and future of all reality—then we might be able to understand their meaning.  If there is meaning to life, the universe, and everything then it must come from a perspective we now lack. This means the problem might not be that the universe lacks meaning, but that we lack the proper perspective.

SHOULD IT BOTHER US THAT WE CAN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION?

Some might reply that it is not comforting but depressing to lack the universal perspective needed to make a determination about meaning. Should we respond like this? In some sense we should, because our dissatisfaction pushes us to do whatever it takes to answer our questions. On the other hand, we must accept that we do not now have all the answers we desire, and probably will not get them in our lifetime. Life calls upon us to learn to live without being sure. It is a hard lesson and most never learn it. But the honest and courageous live with ambiguity and without answers—they live authentically.

In my next post, I will quote at length a 1932 letter from a convict sentenced to life in prison on the meaning of life.

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4 thoughts on “Children and Meaning

  1. Children is a word obviously a symbol of immaturity.Ignoring the sensitivity is not warranted.Meaningful or Meaningless depend on one’s sensitivity about the single incident not of total life.

  2. In 1930 the renowned professional philosopher Bertrand Russell published his book titled “The Conquest of Happiness.” The book begins with the following prefatory quote from Walt Whitman:

    I THINK I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
    I stand and look at them long and long.
    They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
    Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
    Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

    (Note: This Russell book, from which I’ve drawn much valuable practical wisdom, is apparently now in the public domain, copyright-wise, and so is available to read for free on the Internet in PDF form on several safe, legal websites, including the apparently very trustworthy website named “Internet Archive.”)

  3. One can find great meaning in a remote area—the more primitive the location, the more meaning there is in life. But it would be a short life.
    Short and sweet: the sweeter it is, the shorter the life.

  4. Putting on a futurist hat (which is a bit fake, as no-one can have any notion of long-term details), searching for meaning will in the future be increasingly self-defeating.
    In the ‘50s, such was not the case; yet today we are radically changing the world—and we expect the future to be as live-able as it was in the ‘50s?? We’re all fools in that respect, waiting for miracles to come that never do!
    Rancid religion on the ‘right’; moribund marxism on the ‘left’: even the terminology is obviously outdated. Not merely the politics of nostalgia, but the politics of Bad nostalgia. ‘Conservatives’ end up conserving not the positives that they want, but instead they wind up with the negatives that they do not wish for.
    And we wonder why these are dark times? What gutless-wonders we are.
    Grandchildren can live a much better life than we do, and with lessened fear of dying, however not by our increasingly antiquated lights. What we are doing is doing the same things over hoping for different outcomes. No, not insanity but, rather, double-mindedness. Take an example from politics, since things are so apparent in politics. The GOP looks for another Gipper in the Bushes, Dole, McCain, Romney, and then with extreme ludicrousness in Trump. Casting about hopelessly and ruining any microscopic chance for meaning that existed in the first place. Double-mindedness, outdatedness…

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