Added On: Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Finding Meaning

Theodore Dalrymple is a very interesting writer whose ideas I have adapted somewhat for this article. He's a psychiatrist who's worked in a prison and a hospital in a deprived area of Britain over many years. He has often found himself baffled at the crazy choices people make and the obvious destruction they do to their own lives and those of who they love.

His theory is that in modern society, we have trouble finding meaning in our lives. In times past, we were so tied up with the everyday business of survival - eating, shelter, disease - that we had little time to contemplate our wider existence. There were also clearly defined roles for people. If you were born a peasant, you'd die a peasant. If you were born royalty, you'd die royalty. Religion also played an important part in people's lives.

Many people in modern society have no such direction given to them for their lives. Instead, they are forced to find meaning on their own. Generally, this is a good thing, but it is a responsibility not everyone is capable of handling.

Once our basic needs are taken care of, the next thing most of us search for is some kind of meaning to our existence. Many people may not consciously realise this is what they're doing, but it is nevertheless. Perhaps they'll find a reason to exist in art, or fashion, or science, or in following the lives of celebrities. Whatever it is, we need something to make us feel our lives have some purpose.

Many people struggle with this problem, so they fill the emptiness with crises of their own creation and self-destruction. They deliberately make choices and take actions which they know are destructive, because the consequences are exciting and filled with drama. This can create meaning in an otherwise barren existence.

Often, I feel that such people learn these habits from their parents. It's surprising how a child bought up in a violent household can themselves become violent when they have children. There are all sorts of explanations for this, and it's a complex area. But one feasible theory is that they're creating drama because that's how they feel life should be.

Once your eyes are open to this tendency, you begin to see it all around. You may even recognise it a little in yourself. It provides a good framework for understanding otherwise baffling behaviours in people.

So the motivation of the woman who hooks up with all the wrong men, the family that just can't seem to stop fighting, the barroom brawler, and the pathological liar all suddenly becomes much clearer. They're simply trying to distract themselves from what could otherwise be a desolate existence.

A problem recognised is a problem half-solved. If hearing this theory strikes a chord with you, it may give you a clearer understanding of your own behaviour or those of people around you. It always interests me to see the look of recognition on people's faces when I first explain this idea to them. It's as if a veil has been lifted from in front of their eyes.

A solution to this problem, if it's one that affects your life, is to look for new and more constructive measures for creating meaning in life. Sure, this isn't easy, but it's possible nonetheless. Take steps to put yourself down this path.

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