Meaning Without a Shared Narrative

This Cato Institute 2019 poll has some telling results about the state of people’s feelings toward a meaningful existence. What does it mean to have a meaningful existence? Religion, of course, says that a meaningful existence can only happen through religion. Without religion, people seem to seek meaning through politics. Once politics is seen for what it really is – a soul-shaped cavity overflowing with fetid swamp water where dreams go to die – people are left with nothing but hollow materialistic consumerism. When that fails to satisfy the need for purpose, the meaning-wheel comes full circle and people seek a metaphysics to explain how the world works. The most popular of which currently is identity politics.

The Cato Institutes poll shows the following:

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These data should obviously be taken with a grain of salt. For starters, the poll was conducted by the Cato Institute, which is a libertarian think tank, so they have their own biases. But also, what meaning even means will be different depending on who one asks. “My life has meaning” can mean to one person “my life has a grand cosmic meaning” and to another “I find meaning in the way I live my life.” Given these caveats, what can we make of this?

First, it’s interesting that conservatives find the most meaning in their lives, as do the religious. This result is exactly what a religious person would predict: religion offers a grand narrative that gives people’s lives a sense of meaning. However, postmodernism, which one could view as the overriding philosophy of the 21st century, is a rejection of grand narratives. One is to live “my truth” even in contrast to other metaphysics. The only meaning in life is to seek one’s own happiness, often in the form of sensual pleasures, but also in seeking those whose “truth” is similar to ones own. Apparently we cannot escape the elevation of our own narrative into something greater than ourselves.

And so, the question becomes, is it actually possible for humankind to exist, indeed persist, without inventing grand narratives? Is it truly possible to live as Camus’ absurd hero? The absurd hero casts off the illusions of the various fictions we use to delude ourselves that we have intrinsic meaning. The absurd hero doesn’t wallow in nihilism or give in to suicide. As Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus, we have to imagine Sisyphus as happy, despite knowing the futility of his existence – condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down again so he has to start over. We, like Sisyphus, must come to grips with the pointlessness of our actions, and yet continue to do them. Not by pretending they’re meaningful. The absurd hero carries on in full knowledge of the paradox in which they exist – the human need for meaning in a meaningless universe – and does so happily.

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