The Unexamined Life Can Kill--The Danger of Meaninglessness

  • Posted on Oct 11, 2015

Here's this morning's WCF Courier column.  Why seeking and finding meaning makes all the difference--and that would be positive meaning.  

In my decades of teaching at UNI, a year seldom went by that I didn’t notice at least one young, white male who fit the profile of a mass shooter.  Right in my class.   

 Sullen, usually slouched, no smiles, never contributing to discussions.  Often these sad students dropped the class, or may as well have.  

 Such lonely souls worried me, even when they didn’t disappear.  They just seemed to give up, and came to class in body only. If they finished, they were undistinguished and unknown.    
When they have access to guns, they’re potential shooters.  And most have access to guns.   

Gun control?  With millions of weapons already out there, that seems like a dead end.   Still, we need at least as much control for gun ownership as for car ownership.  Well regulated, as the second amendment says.     

 Beyond that, the only hope I see is spiritual. 

 I don’t mean imposing a set of religious beliefs.  That would be as unconstitutional as confiscating guns. 

 These lost students and dropouts suffer from feeling that their lives are essentially hollow, meaningless exercises in futility. No wonder suicides are common.   

 We now live in a toxic cultural stew: Competition, individualism, violent media depictions that center on gunplay, and no values beyond protecting lonely and fragile egos. 

 Last year I co-taught a course where we discussed several films and books about moral choices.   Many of the characters we studied suffered from the soul-sickness that leads to depression and potentially suicide.   

 Class discussions focused on the differences among characters who survived, prospered, and eventually found meanings that gave them life and hope.   Other characters became depressed and descended into despair and suicide.   

Three contrasting examples: Neil Perry in the film Dead Poet’s Society, Edna Pointellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Viktor Frankl in his nonfiction holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. They all reveal the same powerful lesson:  Meaninglessness can be fatal.    

 Neil Perry committed suicide, not because he had not found meaning, but because he was prevented from realizing it by his authoritarian father.  
At the point where Neil would have chosen to find a fulfilling career, his father insisted on forcing him into a career about which he cared nothing.  In a fit of depression about the meaninglessness of his future life, Neil commits suicide.  

 Edna Pointellier discovers that her marriage is a sham and unsalvageable.    She tries an affair, then distracts herself with various hobbies, but found nothing she cared about. For her, suicide seems a better alternative than a living a meaningless life. 

 Viktor Frankl, in contrast, writes about a genuine solution.  Frankl survived horrific traumas as a prisoner in Auschwitz, where he developed his ideas about creating and living a meaningful life.  Man’s Search for Meaning deserves serious attention as an antidote to meaninglessness. 

 At the risk of oversimplifying, Frankl believes that every moment involves choices, and consciously using that moment to make positive choices makes all the difference.  But you have to know it’s possible.   

 As Frankl puts it,  “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

 I’m well aware that someone who feels rejected and lonely, who’s driven by obsessions and self-pity, who has access to guns, probably won’t suddenly find a meaningful better life.  It has to happen early, and often.   

 I’m talking about a widespread and constant conversation about finding positive larger meanings beyond the self.  Religions offer one way, as does spiritual seeking, commitments to causes, vocations, and powerful relationships with genuine intimacy and love. 

 Without any sense of meaning, people become dangerous to themselves and others.  

 The unexamined life can kill.  

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  • Death
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