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Root Cause of the Meaning Crisis

Part One: Humanity’s Most Urgent Pursuit
by Dr. Steven Cangiano

Root Cause of the Meaning Crisis

In this two-part series, Dr. Steven Cangiano explains the root cause of the meaning crisis and offers insight into how we can each  find the purpose of life

This is the greatest time in history to be alive. Unfortunately, the fruits of our progress are obscenely stratified. We are amid a loneliness epidemic, increasing anxiety/depression, and escalating numbers of suicides.

The most disturbing trend is that for the first time in history, the younger generations are being most affected by these diseases of despair. There are many causes – accelerating change, unprecedented levels of uncertainty, political upheaval, intergenerational conflicts,  extreme inequality, racism, automation, financial insecurity, climate change, social media, evolutionary mismatches, capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich, among the traditional existential challenges of life.

A shrinking future goes against the fundamental nature of what it means to be human. Contraction is always extremely disturbing and is the root cause of the meaning crisis. The existential challenges that have been with humanity for eons are being intensified by a set of emergent threats generated by an accelerating world. These factors make putting an end to the meaning crisis humanity’s most urgent pursuit.

The Search for Meaning has Become an Urgent Pursuit

When one seeks the meaning of life, it is typically not an urgent pursuit. Yet, accelerating change is forcing a growing number to hasten their quest for meaning while modernity makes the quest more challenging than ever. Traditionally, meaning was found in the magical intersubjective stories of the past. Myth, religion, superstition, and the conjuring of demons and witches offered profound meaning. Fortunately, the explosion of science, information, education, and personal autonomy has resulted in a precipitous decline in witch burnings and demon hunting. Unfortunately, this coincides with a steep decline in perceived purpose.

Five hundred years ago, I might have been a zealous witch hunter, burning sorcerers at the stake. The zealots of today lack such clarity. They occupy extremes of a much broader spectrum and their solutions often worsen our problems. It is difficult to remain passionate in our complex, sophisticated, nuanced world. Intellectual honesty and the ability to analyze threads of truth in opposing narratives is a rare skill not always suited to the pursuit of meaning.

Our evolutionary need to identify with a tribe and adopt its biases further degrades our sensemaking.

While I retract from the violence and destruction in the streets (June 2020), given different circumstances, I doubt I would do much better. Hunting witches was commonplace in the early days of the printing press; witch-hunting instruction manuals were second to the bible in sales for two hundred years! I might have easily fallen into this trap. Or maybe not; perhaps, looking into their eyes I would catch a glimpse of the humanity we share. Fortunately, I will never know.

What I do know is that life has meaning, and it will not be found in modern woke witch hunting, cancel culture, magical thinking, consumerism, or the trappings of wealth and fame. We must temper the intersubjective stories that are dividing our world and come together around a unifying story.

The following offers significant insight into that story as well as the purpose and meaning of your life.

Life is Meaningless

Two decades ago, I attended a popular self-help seminar that promised to reveal the meaning of life. I cleverly deduced this from the title of the last lesson: “The purpose and meaning of life.” Finally, some answers!

But after an annoying and protracted prologue, the instructor laid a giant rotten egg:

Life is empty and meaningless, and it is empty and meaningless that it is empty and meaningless.

Disappointment does not capture the depths of my sentiment. I ruminated on this for a while, even repeated it at cocktail parties sounding more ill-mannered than enlightened.

Eventually, an unlikely source set me on the right path and inspired much of what you are about to read. Yes, you are about to remember your purpose in life, and our shared humanity is at the center of these insights. This is the greatest story ever told. If telling you the meaning of your life makes me sound arrogant, apologies in advance. Please indulge me, I consider the following to be the ultimate truth.

Preamble: No Mystical, Magical, Spiritual Thinking

Before we go further, it is important to clarify that there will be no mystical, magical, spiritual explanations. That type of rhetoric is counterproductive; deceptions will not help you find meaning and purpose. To answer the four fundamental questions of life, metaphor is useful. When I say something like it took the universe 13.8 billion years to become aware of itself or that the universe was one-verse, I assign no intrinsic intention or supernatural assist. It is just a symbolic way of relating the science and the facts.

The Four Questions

To understand life’s purpose, we must explore and answer four important questions. Answer them briefly and quickly before we continue. This is not a quiz; there are no right or wrong answers. They offer insight into your current understanding of life and will help create a pathway to deeper understanding.

  1. Who Am I?
  2. Where Am I?
  3. Why Am I Here?
  4. What Am I Here to Do?

 Part Two of this series explores the four questions and each answer, helping you to understand life’s purpose.  

This is Part One of a two part series. Find Part Two here.  

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