Meaninglessness in the Postmodern era

Lack of meaning pervades our lives.

Few people would agree with this, but then again who even thinks about such things anymore? People used to think more about the meaning of life, say, in terms of existential despair, crises of faith, angst, philosophical doubt, or fears about selling out. But then again people used to be more intelligent.


I am talking about true meaning, of course, as in deep-seated, wrought and fought for3, thought and felt out and deeply experienced to the point of acute suffering that occurs in a struggle – that can last a lifetime – to make sense of ourselves and our place in the universe.


Fortunately, we don’t need to do any of that today because we have opinions and beliefs instead. If that isn’t enough, our leaders have kindly provided us with manufactured meaning –e.g., propaganda – to tell us how to think and behave.


Then there are the more spontaneous cultural and intellectual fashions to further guide us through life. Identity politics and “political correctness” usually considered to be liberal problems, are very much at the heart of conservative ideology as well. For example, automatic approval of the market, military spending, tax cuts for the super-rich, and the “defense” of our country in 800 military bases 70 countries around the world.


A more comprehensive list would include how we identify ourselves through our hobbies, what we eat, the clothes we wear, where we live, the sports and teams we follow, our career interests and religious affiliations.


Intelligence is an attribute that could help one to avoid such fatuous self-identification, but was what passes for intelligence today is usually applied to getting on or ahead in society and otherwise has nothing to do with the courage and endurance needed to resist conformity,


Assuming we could locate a bright and resolute fellow, though, he would still have the same limitations to knowledge that the rest of us have. Our minds possess many cognitive flaws and biases and memory limitations that keep us from being always accurate.


If we could somehow correct for that,


we still must face the fabricated world with all its influence, control, and power over us. It would help if we could do this as part of a healthy community where people help us through our blind spots, but too often we are expected to face the world alone.


Did I forget to mention desire, the intense need – can I call it the craving – to know the truth about the world as it really is? How many of us possess that indispensable quality for gaining wisdom?


For those who do, how many people are diverted by talk of other worlds where the emphasis is placed improving internally. In the example of contemporary Buddhism, the faithful strive to rid themselves of all intense desires.


If you do try to get to the bottom of how the world influences us, however, the process can be intensely painful. I say this from a lifetime of trying although I would not have it any other way. Pain can be a great deterrent, of course; where do we find help to get through it?


Such are the problems encountered in trying to understand our place in the world.



3 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”, 1842.


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