January 19, 2020

Why We Should Never Settle for ‘Meaningful’

One of the elementary, yet mysterious, dimensions of humanity is the desire to derive something called “meaning” from our existence. The exact nature of this term is nebulous. Surely, there must be a reason why we were all placed in this universe, using our faculties to think, to breathe, and to dream? Life, the ultimate quandary, is the search for something greater than our individual parts. Thus, our task is to strive for what is true and what is good. We strive not merely for the metaphysical, but for an aspect of ourselves that approaches the realization of a worthwhile reality.

When living is devoid of truth, virtue, and responsibility, the human being falters. We shouldn’t only be attracted to what feels right and comfortable. We should also be attracted to that which, in a healthy and generative fashion, makes us uncomfortable. It is hard to live in a community where 20 percent of the communal life doesn’t work well for us; we cultivate humility by remembering that communities are not our family rooms fashioned just as we wish. It’s hard to leave our comfort zones and encounter people and ideologies outside of our immediate circle of familiarity, but that is where we learn what it means to be human.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it is necessary for the experiences we encounter in life to contain some meaning, whether subterranean or overt. When we go out into the vast world, it will be these moments that actually matter. They touch us, they warm our souls, and spark inspiration. But, even more, we should strive for experiences that are transformative, challenging, and enlightening. Religion, philosophy, indeed, any life ideology, is empty if its meaning is derived only from purely transmutable substances; running from an affecting film, to a compelling book, to an emotional sermon. These are only transitory if our minds and hearts are closed in the process. Transformation will not chase us, rather we must chase after self-growth like we have an addiction to inspiration. Experiences of consequence help us grow as beings of integrity. Such experiences allow us to see more deeply as people filled with an enlightened perspective; help us connect more deeply as relational beings.

And, to be sure, for all the power that these moments contain, it is vital that we never settle for their mere occurrence.

Hold on! you may be asking. Who could be against having meaning in their life? The solipsistic dimensions of this thought couldn’t be so stacked against the intangible enormity of infinitude, right?

I am, of course, not against meaning. The eminent psychiatrist and social thinker Viktor Frankl was correct, in my view, that meaning is what enables us to survive the steepest challenges that life presents us. “Ever more people today have the means to live,” Frankl wrote in his book The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism, “but no meaning to live for.” Just because somebody acquires ways to sustain a certain comfortable lifestyle, doesn’t mean that anything significant can stem from it without a particular notion of a joie de vivre that doesn’t depend on material gain. A certain amount of ennui sets in without appreciation for every opportune experience not grasped.

Toni Morrison, the great novelist and professor emerita at Princeton University, articulated this line of thinking while speaking before a group of college graduates at Rutgers University in 2011. She said: “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Indeed, this sentiment is what Frankl was aiming for in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning. Written in the years after surviving and bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, Frankl took all his inner torment and projected his thoughts into a cogent social ethos. In the course of Man’s Search,  Frankl wrote that: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” We are waging a constant war between the elements of our inner selves that cry out for unfettered, unbounded consequence. Some parts of us seek only to satiate the material, while others look to the more heavenly realms for validation.

Throughout our lamentably short time in this universe, we should be willing to sacrifice to cultivate virtue and create change and not merely look for meaning. One should join a community even if one finds it most meaningful to be alone. One should spend time alone even if one is only comfortable in a group. One should speak up if one is an introvert and one should step back if one is an alpha-male who takes up more space than warranted. The purpose of life, then, isn’t merely happiness or superficial significance. Life is too short and valuable for that. Meaning is cheap without a moral foundation to build a person. We need leadership that improves the lives of others even when that work doesn’t feel great or meaningful. Likewise, attaining a meaningful existence is unappreciated if done for its own sake. The tautology of “meaning is meaningless” without x or y in our life is a fool’s errand, not to mention a fool’s philosophy. We should never just resolve to find “meaning,” whatever that means. Instead, with every fiber of our being, we need to create meaning and seek our spiritual relevance in the empyrean echelon of existence. It is the manna that sustains our outer lives and our inner worlds.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.