Religion and tradition have become, for the most part, viewed in a negative light today.
Of course, to progress as a society, we need to question what’s come before, and although religious values had/have a lot of benefits, it’s not hard to see why there has been a downfall in the influence that religious institutions have on people.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
What we’ve lost with religion and tradition is a set of guiding principles. We’ve lost some of the sense of meaning that traditional values provided. We see everything as up-for-debate, and the idea that “the truth for you can be different than the truth for me” is prevalent, leaving most of us at a loss as to what to be doing.
We’ve lost a blueprint for how to live. But this isn’t something unique or new to this generation.
In Rollo May’s book “Man in Search for Himself”, he wrote about how when the established guiding principles of religious tradition break down, we look for guiding principles elsewhere.
In the 1950s, when the book was written, people turned to the approval of society and external validation as a means of finding meaning or principles: buying the latest car, following the latest trend, and ascribing to the latest popular political movement. (The latter setting up conditions for the terrors of Nazism and Communism that were happening in the decades before and after that period.)
It seems like not much has changed, except that now, social media seems to be the main avenue for seeking approval, through publicising our achievements, holidays, latest purchases and political affiliations, as well as comparing our own lives to others’.
But of course, the world is made up of people who, mostly, have just as little insight into how to live life as you do. So, inevitably, you come to realise that society doesn’t have the answers.
There’s only really one place left to turn to:
“Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there.” -Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (A. D. 161–180)
“I am not yet able to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. Care first about the greatest perfection of the soul.” -Socrates
But you haven’t really looked inward before, and it shows. Maybe you realise that you don’t really know who you are, what you actually want from life, what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, what work you want to do, how you behave towards other people.
On further inspection, you begin to realise that you are flawed and that you are not all that you could be. But still, you don’t know what to do with yourself.
From personal experience, this is a common experience for many people in their early-mid 20s (although this may be just because I’m around that age and have seen myself and friends go through it. Realistically, it could happen at any age), in that stage of moving away from home, finishing formal education, and moving into the “Real World”.
At this point, anxiety can ensue, and you can turn to frequent alcohol or drug abuse to numb that pain, like so many do. At a lower level, you can distract yourself with the endless entertainment available through the internet.
But that angst doesn’t go away. Eventually, you find yourself alone, contemplating this lack of sense of identity or self, and if you don’t deal with it, it can go down a dark road, where you begin to question the meaning of life itself, and if there really is any point to it all.
As far as I can tell, this is where the processes of self-discovery and self-development come to the fore, or at least, it’s one option that may help.
We can start to ask ourselves questions to start the process of discovering who we really are, writing the answers down (journalling) for more clarity. Questions like:
“What kind of person do I want to be?”
“What do I want my life to look like?”
“What experiences do I get joy from?”
“What behaviours am I currently doing that make me feel depressed?”
“What are my relationships like?”
“What work do I enjoy doing?”
That’s the self-discovery part. Next comes self-development, where we take the information we find out about ourselves and aim to develop on it.
“What would I need to work on to be a better person?”
“What daily habits would I need to put in place to get to where I want to be?”
“What skills can I learn to put myself in the best position to do work I enjoy?”
“Do I need to address an ongoing issue I’ve been having with a loved one?”
“What are the next steps I can take?”
Of course, there are hundreds of questions, just like this, that you could be asking of yourself, and taking action on the answers is going to be equally as important, so the most important step is to start.
This process is likely to be a long one, but you can pick up small wins along the way. For example, you get into an argument and feel the usual anger coming up, ready to explode with a flurry of curse words, but you remember last week when you discovered through journalling or contemplation, that this is anger is something you need to get control of, and having thought up some better tactics for dealing with arguments, you proceed to take a deep breath, deal with the issue at hand, and come to a solution.
However, the main goal of self-discovery and self-development is self-fulfilment. In this process, the meaning is found.
The meaning I’m referring to is in that feeling that you are living up to your potential and performing the duties that help you progress towards goals that feel meaningful to you.
I don’t think you find meaning by asking, “What is the meaning of life?”
I think one way that you find meaning is by getting to know yourself (your tendencies, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, interests, guiding principles etc.), developing the parts of you that need to be developed, and doing the things that feel meaningful to you, as they present themselves.
And you don’t have to wait to the end of this process to find meaning, because there is no time where you finally “Find yourself” or “Fulfil yourself”.
Instead, the meaning can be found during the process, in things like:
Journalling about these types of questions.
Reading about how great thinkers have dealt with these types of questions. i.e. Reading philosophy.
Having conversations with people you like.
Working on skills that are challenging but fulfilling.
Educating yourself on topics related to your work or interests.
Doing meaningful work.
I don’t think you can ever get away from sometimes feeling anxious about whether or not you’re living your life in the way you should, and as the Buddha said, “Life is suffering”, but perhaps we can find enough meaning through self-discovery, self-development and self-fulfilment, to get us through without suffering unnecessarily with that feeling of meaninglessness.