Soul Crafting and the Meaningful Life
By: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2018 (re-written March 3, 2021)
Biologically driven to chase pleasure and avoid pain; but meaningful living requires more. We escape the purposelessness by building relationships, and leaving a legacy of compassion
Joy is pleasurable—it feels good. We want to feel good; secure, loved, healthy and happy. We willingly work to maximize the comforts and minimize vexing annoyances. The underlying desires for pleasure and elimination of pain motivate action. But living is more than a sacred quest for pleasure; it must be, right? Are we just blindly marching to internal drives for a better emotional state? It seems like a state of purposelessness. Life in all its grandness, the entire universe dynamically moving and changing, then there is I, a mere speck, chasing a feeling. Yet, somehow, the challenges, sorrows, and joys, give meaning; and with meaning we transcend purposeless existence, fusing life with richness and warmth.
Consciousness and the Future
Perhaps, consciousness is to blame. Thinking adds a new dimension to existence. Something beyond the biological drive for more joy and less sorrow. We still seek pleasure and avoid discomfort—to some degree. Yet with complex cognitions, we consider futures. Behaviors driven by immediate pleasure are occasionally suppressed, bowing to hopes for something better in the conceivable future. The distress of momentary discomforts softens with a wisdom that considers a future.
"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."
The social world has changed exponentially over the past few millennia. Biological adaptations lag woefully behind. Biologically a species changes occurs over hundreds or thousands of years, while social changes occur monthly. The industrial revolution radically changed supply of survival needs. Many physical needs that were historically in short supply are now available in abundance.
Limited supplies provide natural controls on consumption. In abundance, we must utilize self-control, occasionally foregoing biological driven pleasures. We don’t sleep with our neighbor’s wife, over extend credit, or feast on hostess cupcakes. We endure the discomforts of biological drives because we consciously know the anxieties these momentary pleasures can cast on the future.
Yet, even the futures we honor, eventually fade into dust. We give up our riches, friends and enjoyments and we slip off to the grave. Do we exist in a temporary state of purposelessness?
"To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering."
Purposelessness is the characteristic of lacking purpose or significance.
Subjective Definitions of Purpose
A sense of purpose relies on our conceptual definition of meaning. If we believe that life only has meaning if it extends beyond the grave, certainly anything short of eternal life will color our existence as purposeless. The mere thought creates a hole.
Many years ago, a man posed the question, "how can I find meaning?" on a social media site. He explained that he grew up in a staunch Catholic household, and that he no longer believed in religion. While he was convinced of his new beliefs, he couldn't find meaning in life. He was haunted by a emptiness.
The the response was amazing. Hundreds of group members jumped in. "Have you tried..." Each well-meaning attempt to help was met with "I tried it. It didn't work." It occurred to me that he was seeking an eternal meaning for his finite existence.
On the stage of a grand eternity, our short meaningful events lose poignancy. A sense of accomplishment from a hobby, such as writing, is purposeless in comparison to an eternal bliss in paradise.
See Existential Funk for more on this topic
"And that's how it is in America. We look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad. It is both how we live our lives and why we live our lives."
The Search for Meaning
I have lost contact with this group. A place where I routinely visited and commented during my own existential search for meaning. I hope this man found the meaning he was seeking. His search was honorable. A sign of an intellectual mind, reaching beyond the normal limits of experiences.
Viktor Frankl wrote, "they should know that despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life constitutes a human achievement rather than a neurosis. After all, no animal cares whether or not its existence has a meaning." Frankl continues, "it is the prerogative of man to quest for a meaning to his life, and also to question whether such meaning exists."
Frankl counsels, however, that the question must be matched with "patience." People, exhorts, "should be patient enough to wait until, sooner or later, meaning dawns on them" (2000, p. 134).
"I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these 'how' and 'why' questions. Occasionally, I find an answer."
Meaning in the Present
Rollo May warns that placing hope in a grand future may serve as an excuse not to invest in the present. The future provides a convenient escape from current anxieties.
May theorizes that "many people react...to feelings of unhappiness...or purposelessness by turning...away from the present...with the question, "What pleasant thing do I have to look forward to?" He warns that this hope for the future "deadens the present."
May certainly isn't suggesting that hope itself is maladaptive. He is theorizing that many use hope when challenged by life in replacement of more adaptive responses. May explains, "but hope need not be used in this 'opiate' form. Hope in its creative and healthy sense...can and should be an energizing attitude, the bringing of part of the joy about some future event into the present so that by anticipation, we are more alive and more able to act in the present" (2009 pg. 262).
Sartre and Our Responsibility to Create Meaning
Certainly, many shutter at the thought of creating individual meaning. They see it as a poor replacement for rejection of god's pre-determined meaning of life that infuses the universe. Many of Jean Paul Sartre's writings convey a sorrowful purposeless.
"Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance."
Julian Baggini, founding editor of The Philosopher's Magazine wrote, "for Sartre, the crucial truth we have to recognize is that because purpose and meaning are not built in to human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning." Baggini adds, "this requires us to confront our own responsibility for creating meaning for ourselves" (2007, pg. 12).
Religious beliefs may play a significant role in this creation. They may provide the foundational purpose to life. Roy F. Baumeister Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University, wrote, "the need for purpose is the need to regard one's current activities as leading toward some desired goal or state of fulfillment" (1992).
Certainly, religion can fulfill Baumeister's "need for purpose. But, just as Rollo May explained with "hope," the belief should energize the present, bringing some of the joy about the future into the present.
Our meaningful beliefs and joyful hopes can dispel the purposelessness void in the present. Our meanings should not be used to disregard the present as useless but to enhance it.
Our beliefs and hopes in the future should not be used to disregard the present but as a means to enhance it, making the present a treasured step on the path to something better.
What Can We Do to Create Meaning?
Life is filled to the brim and spilling over with meaningful opportunities. Most of those opportunities center around relationships. Our spouses, children, family and friends can be a foundational center piece in a meaningful life.
Another source of meaning is personal development. Personal development—soul crafting—was a central theme in Dante's Inferno. "Soul-crafting involves spiritual purification in confrontation with temptation, suffering, and human fallibility" (Belliotti, 2011).
Soul-crafting is molding experience into something positive. Raymond Angelo Belliotti, a professor of philosophy explains " we should learn how to turn suffering, pain, and adversity to practical advantage. In most cases, meaning and value can be wrenched, admirable character can be forged, and worthwhile responses can be conjured from difficult situations." He continues, "adversity is irredeemably bad only if we collaborate in its intrigue (2011, location 4104).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, also refers to a version of soul crafting as an essential way to create meaning. He wrote that, "becoming an active, conscious part of the evolutionary process is the best way to give meaning to our lives at the present point in time, and to enjoy each moment along the way" (1994, location 475).
Our personal development follows us beyond the grave, perhaps, only through the goodness we transmit to those around us. Little pieces of our development mark the way for others. Kindness and compassion don't simply vanish with our death but leave ripples throughout time and eternity.
Intimate relationships, long careers, healthy children all require working through the onslaught of emotions, but pushing through fears, squashing angers, and suffering through sadness. We can manage these discomforts as we move towards larger meaningful purposes.
Life losses its purposelessness in meaningful living. We reclaim immortality as we leave the world a little better than we found it. This is my dream, my hope.
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Baggini, J. (2007). What's It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life. Oxford University Press; 1st edition
Baumeister, R. F. (1992). Meanings of Life. The Guilford Press; Revised ed. edition.
Belliotti, R. A. (2011). Dante's Deadly Sins: Moral Philosophy In Hell. Wiley-Blackwell; 1st edition
Csikszentmihalyi. M. (1994). The Evolving Self. Harper Perennial.
Frankl, V. (2000). Man's Search For Ultimate Meaning.
May, R. (2009). Man's Search for Himself. W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition.