The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.

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Emotional Honesty

I recently posted a brief discourse on restraint in which I denigrated the notion of emotional honesty as that concept is used today. I should be clear that I am not opposed to emotional honesty, I am opposed to the notion that the only way to behave in an emotionally honest way is to behave like an animal. True, animals are emotionally honest, we must suppose, but that is not by choice. The human tendency to display honesty in the form of animal behavior is a choice we seem to have made.

I suspect the notion that it is somehow a good thing to express our emotional honesty in this manner arises from a misreading of Sigmund Freud who wrote a great deal about “repression.” Later psychologists, in their attempts to develop Freud’s theory, argued that repression is an unhealthy thing and it would be healthier to be as open and honest  about our emotions as possible. The key here is that in order to be mentally healthy we need to be aware of our emotion states, not necessarily to express them openly. If we are mad, we need to acknowledge that fact and not repress it. In fact, Freud distinguishes between “proper” and “primal” repressions.  We need to know just what it is that is being repressed and why.

In Freud’s system it is the id that is repressed, that element of the human psyche that operates under what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Many who read Freud reduce this to our sexual urges and those are certainly included, but they do not exhaust the urges of the id which includes such mundane things as the urge to eat when we are hungry and strike out when we are mad. We are talking about primal urges.

The healthy individual, according to Freud, seeks to balance the urges of the id with the restrictions of the ego and the super ego — the notion of balance going back to the Greeks, if you can imagine. The most productive way to do this is through “sublimation,” a term Freud borrowed from Nietzsche. When we sublimate the primitive urges which we all experience, we direct them away from their intended object (we don’t hit the Trump supporter) and redirect those urges into creative outlets such as art, philosophy, science, for example, or simply redecorating the living room, going for a run — or, perhaps, writing a blog.

The notion that it is healthy to behave like an animal is therefore a misreading of Freud and completely ignores the fact that repression of those basic urges is necessary if civilization is to survive. In fact, it is through the sublimation of the id that civilization arose in the first place. People need to live together in relative harmony and this is not possible if they are releasing their basic urges every time they are felt. The important distinction here is the acknowledgment of basic urges, which is necessary for mental health and the expression of those urges which reduces the human to the animal — which we all are, but which we presumably seek to rise above: no one seriously wants to live in Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thus, when a person (any person, even the president) gives immediate vent to his basic urges, or when the athlete pounds his chest like a Great Ape, he is expressing his emotions, he is being “emotionally honest” in only a restricted sense of that term. More to the point, he is not being all he can be as a human being. When he screws up and apologizes or taps his chest and says “my bad,” he is. The difference is important is we are to grasp just where we stand as human beings. After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.

Infantile Narcissism

Near the end of a most interesting essay on “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Lionel Trilling has a brief summary of one of the many insights Freud had into human psychic development. It deserves serious reflection because regression is a phenomenon of increasing familiarity.  As Trilling notes:

“According to Freud, in the very earliest stages of infancy, the self is not experienced, let alone conceived, as separate from its environment. In the first months of life the universe is, as it were, contained within the infant’s sensory system. Only by gradual stages in the process of maturation does the infant come to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it, and learns to surrender the omnipotence of its subjectivity. Recognizing the imperative nature of the objectified universe, the infant acquires the ability to deal with the external world in individual acts of will. Thus it survives, and to the agency of its survival, to that element of the psychic economy which has guided the infant in making this necessary differentiation between itself as subject and the world as object, Freud gave the name of ego.

“The development of the ego is a process of infinite complexity, of which one aspect is its periodic reluctance to go forward in its growth. Sometimes it is tempted to regress to a less active and effectual stage, even to turn back to the comfortable condition of subjective omnipotence, to the megalomania of infantile narcissism.”

Freud called this the development of the “reality principle,” the slow and at times painful awareness that the self is not all, that there are cruel necessities “out there” that are separate from us and demand our attention. To the extent that the world becomes more threatening, to the extent that our attention turns back upon itself and dwells on its own immediate pleasures and desires, to that extent is growth and maturity stunted. And it is this phenomenon that demands our attention, because today we demand that the world be of our own liking and to the extent that it is not, to that extent is its objectivity denied and the truths that are painful twisted into “alternative facts” and “false news.” The phenomenon of “regression” is of particular interest.

Recently ours is a world of immediate gratification, a world in which our desires are satisfied as soon as they are felt — like those of the infant who cries and is fed or changed. Indeed, increasingly we seem to lack the ability to mature, to grow as adults and face the demands of a world not of our own making. Instead we retreat into our world of things which we have “bought” on time — because we want them now, not later, a world of pleasure where everything is as we would have it be. If our world is not as we would have it be, we reject it and refuse to allow that it is real. We seem to have developed a very weak reality principle, as Freud would have it, and prolonged our infancy well into old age. As Trilling notes, in the normal maturation process the infant as he ages “comes to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it.” We seem to struggle with that realization, to fight against it. Triggered, perhaps, by our growing fear and uncertainty we submerge ourselves in a world of entertainment — including, but not restricted to, the electronic toys that allow us to prolong the illusion that we are in total control of the world around us. This supports Trilling’s contention that many of us may be regressing to a stage of “infantile narcissism.”

What to do? It would seem that until or unless we address the matter head-on it will simply grow worse. We need to come out of ourselves, admit that the world is not of our own making, that things are not always as we would have them be, in order to begin to grow as human beings. Above all else, though Freud pays little attention to this feature of human development, we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment. These are key ingredients to developing a healthy reality principle, an adult relationship with the world around us.

The alternative, as Freud would have it, is to continue to wish, unconsciously no doubt, to return to the womb where it was safe and warm and all our needs were immediately gratified. That’s not the “real” world; that is the world of “subjective omnipotence,” the “megalomania of infantile narcissism.”