Meanings of Life
Great Books for Families

H. Wallace Goddard

There are some books that are not likely to be read by many people yet contain penetrating insights. Some of those insights might be useful to many people. So, while a book that is dense and philosophical is hard to recommend to everyone, all of us can be enriched by the ideas in a dense and brilliant book.

In the paragraphs that follow, I provide some commentary together with extended quotes from Roy Baumeister. In my view, Baumeister’s central point may be that we in today’s world are the fish who discover water last. Having been immersed in a certain world view with its attendant ways of making meaning, we may revolt at the suggestion that we are mistaken. Yet, I think our modern view may be very much at odds with the sweet, simple teachings of Jesus.

Meanings of life

Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, launches his book, Meanings of Life,  with the simple observation: “Ordinary people are pretty sure that life must have some meaning. They are hard put to say what it is, but they’re confident it’s there, or at least they hope it is. Life certainly doesn’t seem absurd-most of the time, anyway” (p. 3).

Yet meaning in life doesn’t just happen. “The modern anxiety is whether all [the] little bits of meaning add up to something suitable big. . . . If you’re not careful, your life’s meaning might end up being an unsightly hodgepodge of loose ends, daily hassles, hand-me-downs, petty gripes, half-baked opinions, and clichs” (p. 5).

Meaning and Identity

Our modern, secular world has increasingly emphasized individual rights, individuality, and identity. This turns out to be a mixed blessing: “Modern life offers people a wealth of some forms of meaning, but it doesn’t offer clear guidance about fundamental values. This “value gap,” as I shall call it, is the single biggest problem for the modern Western individual in making life meaningful. A major part of the modern response to this value gap is to elevate selfhood and the cultivation of identity into basic, compelling values. But if we rely on the quest for identity and self-knowledge to give life meaning, we make ourselves vulnerable to death in an almost unprecedented way. . . . In contrast, our ancestors typically drew comfort from values that would outlive them.”

In fact, famous psychologist Erik Erikson, suggested that later life collapses into meaninglessness and despair unless a person has invested much of self in others in family and/or the workplace. For Erikson, the opposite of meaningful maturity and the feeling of contribution that he called Generativity, was self-absorption.

Returning to Baumeister: “Thus, the high value that people today place on self and identity is a mixed blessing. It helps fill the value gap and allow people to make judgments about what is good and bad, right and wrong, despite modern society’s inability to agree on broad, universal morals. But it leaves people naked in the face of death. It is a value that fails people at one of the times when they need it most” (p.6).

The Last Shall be First.

Baumeister observes a human tendency that sounds like the working of the natural man: “People need to make sense of their lives in a way that enables them to feel they have positive value. In practice, this need usually takes the form of finding some way to feel superior to others. The quest for superiority seems to be part of a wide range of actions, from status-seeking to showing off, from sports competition to gossip, from racial prejudice to salary negotiations” (p. 44). “When in need of an ego boost or of comfort, people find someone worse off than themselves and think about how they are superior to this less fortunate person” (p. 54).

This seems to be just what the Gospel predicts for the natural man. The irony is that those who spend their lives finding and aggrandizing themselves will be lost in eternity. Those who lose themselves in service, will find rich meaning, purpose, and identity in eternity.

This is one of those great gospel paradoxes. The first will be last. The last (such as He who was born in a stable and dedicated Himself to serving others) will be First. Or, as Jesus said several times: “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11, Matthew 23:12, Luke 18:14, D&C 101: 42).

Moral Dominoes

When we pick up an attractive new philosophy, we are often blissfully aware of some of the implications and consequences. The modern trend toward focus on the self threatens frightening consequences for people today.

“The reaction against oppressive morality has been accompanied by a new view of human functioning and relationships that is based on therapy. In this view, the goal is to make people happy, healthy, and well-adjusted; issues of right and wrong are deliberately downplayed, and when morality seems to interfere with self-expression, then morality must usually give way” (p.89) “As a result, the modern individual faces life with fewer firm criteria of legitimacy and fewer reliable ways to tell right from wrong” (p. 92).

“People also shifted away from evaluating the self in moral categories and instead started to describe the self in terms of individual personality traits. . . . This expanded, oversized self is capable of taking on new functions. In particular, it may be suitable to serve as a source of meaning to remedy whatever deficiencies of meaning are encountered in modern life. . . . Indeed, it sometimes seemed as it the self were one of the weapons of modernization that was used to demolish the conservative forces of traditional values. . . .

Religion had little direct relevance to industry or business, and commercial success was typically an amoral project (and sometimes an immoral one!). . . . Modern economic life is based on the individual, rational pursuit of self-interest, which gradually came to replace the older patterns that were based on the cooperative, moral pursuit or the collective welfare” (p.96).

Baumeister quotes influential Bellah, and associates: “In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide” (p.103). The moral danger of this position must be obvious to all readers. With the change has come a staggering rise in rates of depression (tenfold in two generations!) The evidence of moral relativism is certainly obvious in today’s world.

Heroes and Villains

“Pursuit of self-interest was regarded [in past historical eras] as antisocial, because the best thing for the group would be to have individual members cooperate, help each other, and place the group’s welfare above their own. Social morality accordingly condemned self-interest as selfishness, greed, egoism, and with other similarly pejorative terms.

“For centuries, then, each individual made his or her major life choices between the conflicting demands of self-interest and morality. . . . Virtue meant conquering the various forms of self-interest, including greed, lust, laziness, and cowardice. . . . Vice, in contrast, meant putting the impulses and desires of the self first and acting on them even when such actions ran counter to the community’s needs, wants, and values. The hero exerted and suffered for others, and in the process the hero helped the community. The villain indulged his or her own selfish appetites at the expense of others.

“Morality [today] has become allied with self-interest. It is not simply that people have the right to do what is best for themselves (although that is an important part of it); rather, it has become an almost sacred obligation to do so. The modern message is that what is right and good and valuable to do in life is to focus on yourself, to learn what is inside you, to express and cultivate these inner resources, to do what is best for yourself, and so forth…No, instead, there is an increasingly moral imperative to do the opposite” (p. 113).

The New Morality

“To live one’s life properly and achieve the highest form of human fulfillment, it was once considered necessary to know about God. Now it is considered vital to know about your self instead. On the crucial question of what to do with your life, the answer no longer comes from God (or from the station in society where God placed you). Instead, the answer supposedly emerges from deep inside yourself” (p.113).

“Morality had always operated as a check on self-interest, and virtue meant overcoming the self. Now, instead, morality has endowed self-interest with the positive force of rights and obligations, and a new set of virtues emphasizes knowing, developing, and expressing the self” (p.115).

The humble believer in Christ is challenged to ask if we might have been duped into calling evil good and good evil. As Baumeister observes, “Duty to the self seems to have replaced duty to God” (p.142). His book challenges us to notice the pollution in the cultural water in which we are currently swimming.

Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.

2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.