The uniquely human condition of being able to reflect upon our role in this vast universe we find ourselves in is suffocating the psychological well-being of many individuals born into prosperity, into life without struggle. At least that’s what I see around me.
We live in unprecedented times of prosperity. We have achieved much of what the evolutionary will to survive propelled us to secure. In the western world, much of what we need or desire is so close, often not farther than at the tips of our fingers.
Why walk down a different path in a forest, when you can get your dose of novelty scrolling through Instagram? Why bother planning out a first date, when you can satisfy your sexual desires with a few clicks or a few swipes if genetically gifted?
Hunting for food?
Ha! Uber delivery? I will have a pepperoni with extra cheese on top. A click away.
We got here, our beloved ancestors! Much of our basic needs met without a sliver of effort, and things will only get easier with time.
Yet, we should ask ourselves, are we any happier? Has the human predicament been solved by our prosperity?
No, the struggle moved to a higher level, now we struggle for meaning, not food, and the supermarket that sells solutions is emptier than hand sanitizer stand in Boots after Corona broke out.
Pantry is barely holding together under the weight of all the food, yet we don’t care, food is a non-issue. Roof overhead, full belly, no one forcing us to bear arms to fight in a conflict of insatiable egos, yet we remain discontent, puzzled, floating in the sea of possibility and indecision, with utter inability to set the course.
Where should I go? What should I do?
“I am going to be a vet doctor!” Shouts the ten-year-old self.
How uncomplicated life seemed back then, how easy it was to choose.
Moons come and go, and there you are in the middle of your studies to become the forethought vet, sitting under a dim light over a paper you need to finish. Yet your eyes confess a concern, a doubt. Have I chosen the right path? Do I really want this?
Now imagine, a cry of a child fills your ears. What could that be? Suddenly awake from the rumination you realize it’s your daughter. Turning you see your spouse as she picks her up and soothes her.
The worry disappears from your eyes. You forget about the silly thoughts that bugged you a moment ago.
“I have to do my best to take care of them,” rings in your head. “I have to finish what I started.”
There are people who rely on you, who need your full presence and support, what a wonderful unforeseen luxury.
How beneficial it is to commit and have kids young. Deeply entrenched evolutionary instincts kick in and you finally know why you wake up in the morning. You are offered a clear vision, to take care of your spouse, take care of your child, precisely at a time when you begin to question what should you do with your life. What a time to have a physical proof of the meaning of your existence.
If it wasn’t (only) family, generations upon generations born into times of unrest and conflict were bombarded with nationalistic exhortations both from paper and the pulpit, which offered them the luxury to immerse their inner self into the shared interest of the nation. They shed blood and tears for their nation, in exchange for a sense of meaning. Being a part of a greater whole, fighting for a common cause, sharing an identity, all contributed to a life worth living.
Ubiquitous religiosity also offered a quick escape from the tormenting doubt about one’s worth and destiny. In fact, it served and still serves as one of the most effective and powerful solutions to all our existential needs. Struggle with self-esteem, fear, significance, truth, all solved in a book, in a teaching, in one of the most powerful tools of the human imagination, in stories.
But what do we do today, when the family, state, and religion are losing their grip on the imagination of the Western world? Where will we look for a source of meaning? What will help us to set the direction for our life? Do we still have the luxury to embrace a grand story?
Where should I go? What should I do?
I think history can help us find a path forward, for all of us. The truth is life void of struggle is void of meaning. It’s nothing new. The millennials of today are not the first generation born into prosperity. We are not the first who need to tackle the existential problems of our existence as if they were our only problems.
Firstly, family, state and religion are always available, and there is technically nothing wrong with them (although both nationalism and religious dogmatism can be very dangerous, but they allow for a range in the extent of one’s commitment to them).
But secondly, it can be turned on its head, just think of all the rebellions against the establishment that took place in America during the second half of the twentieth century. The Second-Wave feminism, civil rights movements, anti-war movements, the whole Hippie and Beat generation, and whatever other movement people found for themselves.
We have to do the same, we have to find our fights to fight, our problems to solve, and to struggle through, our values to stand for. And this is already happening as we speak.
Social justice warriors found their calling in alleviating injustice across the global soil.
Conservationists exchanged fighting for their Patria to fight for the lives of endangered plant and animal species.
Global warming activists don’t unite around the world because of their religious creeds, or nationalities, or family ties, or the color of their skin, they unite in hope of saving life on this precious yet precarious planet.
Technology innovators and scientists, well, they are doing what they have always been doing. They look at questions and problems and can’t help but search for the answers.
All those people found their at least partial calling.
As Harari writes about webs of belief in his seminal work Homo Deus, even we, the young of today, should be able to spin our very own web of belief. It can be woven from the aforementioned examples, but also from bits of books, songs, movies, dreams, beliefs, words of encouragement, and any other problems or aspirations we can identify, all together justifying and explaining our existence to us.
When each one of us has our very own story, our own “fiction”, we can take on the world.
And even if I am wrong, even if many are not able to create their webs of belief as the generations before us, who found their source of meaning in state or religion, at other times in menial labor and caregiving, and at other in rebellion, maybe the struggle we have to overcome today is one of finding a reason to live.
Maybe we finally can go full throttle on the questions that had puzzled all the generations before us.
Maybe our source of meaning, our fight, will be to find a source of meaning in times of prosperity without succumbing to embrace dogma.
In the next essay, I will talk about why we have to commit to something to find a source of meaning.
Until then, Andrej.