February 28, 2019
The human tendency to attach ourselves to something bigger or greater than ourselves is more prevalent than many of us are cognizant of. We are drawn—consciously or unconsciously—and attach ourselves to specific religions, organizations, political parties, and even sports teams.
And why not? The world in which we have all found ourselves is one of isolation, yet we are still a species who longs for community. By attaching ourselves to a specific group, by adopting that group’s beliefs, we create a clear and concise identity. A way to coherently explain our very existence. And thus, as Thomas Merton wrote, “we cheaply purchase a relative security; we contrive for ourselves an identity we think we can more easily manage and live up to.”
But to lose yourself in that identification, to feel as though you are not enough without it, that is where the danger lies. What is even more concerning, and has become increasingly more common in our society, is the conflation of trivial pursuits of self-aggrandizement with actual accomplishment.
We’ve confused attention and validation, in the form of social media likes and followers, with genuine affection and value. We are on an endless search for meaning derived from symbols of status or idolatries. Celebrities are worshiped endlessly as social media use becomes increasingly recognized as a skill or hobby. No one person needs to placed on the pedestals we allow them.
Even more, in our world, unfortunately, identification has also begun to breed disunion, and disunion creates malevolence. What many of us do not realize, though, is we are all connected by our inexplicable and imperfect humanness. To disagree with the beliefs of a particulate group is one thing, but to disassociate from and dehumanize others because their beliefs do not match our own is to deny the existence of the only true connection we have to each other—our humanity.
It is easy to be diverted from our search for individuality and commitment to character development. We are often so focused on accomplishing something, that we lose sight of who we are becoming in the process. When we eventually burn out or wake up, and the decision to create a better life is made, our real work begins. Which is usually unbecoming all the things we were never meant to become in the first place.
I wanted my new life to be different than the one I had, and better than any I had imagined up to that point. I didn’t want to be a drinker who took an occasional sober sabbatical, I wanted to be someone who was sober, focused, and highly functional. And I knew I had qualities that were being suppressed. “Our soul has capabilities, and is carried thither, if vices do not hold it down,” Seneca wrote. And through sobriety and self-examination, I was able to discover some of the capabilities of my soul, and gain a sense of hope, belonging, and identity.
Nothing would come easy, however, and without the commitment of time and self-dissolution. For most of my life, my identity was attached to some larger entity, organization, or conviction. I lived with the misconception that I knew who I was. I had what I believed was a form of true identity. Merton, however, warned us against this type of rash self-discernment, describing it as “a false identity,” one that “does not even represent that which is authentically personal in us.” And if we are not careful, the exchange of individuality for identity is done unconsciously. And once we are “cut off from our true inner selves, we remain alienated beings, semi-fictions, masks,” and will likely find that our “best energies are wasted playing various arbitrary roles.”
To me, attaching the value and meaning of our existence to an icon, idol, institution, or specific religion just feels lazy. It just feels too simplistic to entertain only one explanation of the known Universe, human existence, and the meaning of life. As much as I do not agree with the single-mindedness of this approach, I do understand the appeal.
Why wouldn’t you be attracted to the safety of organized religion or a specific political party or even your city’s sports team? Just by saying “I’m with them,” you are now part of a bigger whole, a larger community of like-minded individuals. Your beliefs and place in the world become far easier to rationalize to yourself and explain to others.
But something we inherently do all have in common, and are innately thrown together by, is our suffering. Everyone feels beaten down or disregarded at some point in their lives. And as perceptive as we try to be, we never know when that may be occurring for someone else. As C. S. Lewis asked, “What can you ever really know of other people’s souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles?”
How does the expression go? “Be nice to others because everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Whether you believe in the divine or not, to struggle and to suffer is something we all experience at different intervals throughout our lives. For the religious, it may be seen as a test from God, and instantly given meaning. For the rest of us, it is up to us to ease or make sense of our trials and tribulations.
Viktor Frankl would tells us: “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” It is up to you to discover this meaning for yourself. And no one but you can decide what gives your life meaning. “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour,” Frankl wrote. “What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
And thus, if you can find some meaning for today, tomorrow will be that much more enjoyable.