Thursday, June 14, 2007

Constructing Meanings - It's the effort that Counts!

Synchronicity 3

Whether “God” exists or not is neither here nor there. What is important is our need for “God”, for some “principle of order”, for some “pattern” or “meaning” in our lives. I was always taken with the famous statement of the French philosopher and playwright Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” I remember a fellow student, Esther Crowe, introducing me to the thought of this philosopher in 1979 when we were both presenting our theses at Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin - a long time ago, indeed. Esther was always, and no doubt still is, a wonderfully bright philosopher. The meaning of Voltaire’s quotation is still debated today. Voltaire was a leading light in the Enlightenment which espoused the authority and supremacy of reason alone. Voltaire did believe in God and did write a lot about religious tolerance.

Voltaire seems to suggest, to my mind anyway, that society needs a God or an ordering principle to allow it have an ultimate source of truth and law etc. In like manner, I think he also proposes the necessity of a God for the individual human being. More atheistic interpretations of Voltaire’s famous quotation have been given, but I instinctively think and feel that my understanding may be closer to the truth. I admit my own bias here, having been brought up in the religious tradition of Roman Catholicism, having been steeped in it for some length of time, though I would now term myself a liberal Catholic Christian with a leaning towards Traditional Christian Mysticism and Buddhist Meditation Practices. It is impossible for me to be any clearer than this about my stance towards life which I find a profound mystery.

It would seem to me that all of psychotherapy works on this basic principle – that life is meaningful. If life is not meaningful, then the very project, which each of our lives is in essence, is from the outset doomed to failure. And, of course, in this line of thinking the ultimate failure is death. However, such negative thinking can have no place in psychotherapy, or in any positive take on the human condition. I have always loved Viktor Frankl’s marvellous book Man’s Search for Meaning (1945), which I read years back when I was a student at Mater Dei. That book was mind-blowing for me. Frankl (1905-1997) had been incarcerated in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau Concentration Camps. While there he noticed that only those people who could find a meaning or a reason for living even in the worst hell on earth would survive. Viktor Frankl did survive. He set himself the task of coming up with his own therapy, logotherapy, as a project he could elucidate in his own head. Not even the worst punishments of the evil Nazi machine could penetrate into the strength of will and meaning he found in his own heart, soul and mind. In the silence of these private spaces he wrote his book word for word virtually in his mind. After release he would write it down on paper.

One way or another we each must construct a pattern of meaning to make our lives worthwhile and live-able even on a more superficial level. People find meaning in all sorts of ways: people, places, activities and things. Some people find a meaning in other human beings and in helping them – doctors, nurses, priests, teachers etc. Others find meaning in activities like say playing music, playing football professionally, being a truck driver, a bus or train driver, an airline pilot etc. Others yet again find meaning in things like amassing money, collecting sports cars, getting to the top in their company, becoming the best-paid lawyer etc. Some people are careerists where their worldly success is everything. Then, there are others, probably fewer in number, who find meaning in some religious or spiritual impulse – say Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, etc – all the major religions of the world. Some of these become monks and/or priests of their religion. Outside organised, institutionalised religion there are others who are spiritual pioneers or scouts who belong to no church, who are simply animated by the quest to get to know the Self or the Soul in a non-denominational sense. This latter group is forever growing as Eastern philosophies are incorporated into Western ways of thinking. Here we are confronted by that rather amorphous group of New Age philosophies and therapies which incorporate everything from the magical to the Tarot to the I-Ching to Crystal therapy etc. Then there is the more popular psychological movement which goes by the term “Self-Help” which often incorporates some of the former on the bookshelves of modern bookstores.

All of the above shows that humankind’s quest for meaning is unstoppable and unquenchable. We need meaningful patterns in our lives; otherwise we will literally go mad. Without meaningful patterns we are unbalanced and tipped over into the world of neurosis and possibly even psychosis.

So synchronicity, then, is not that far-fetched when contextualised within humankind’s overall search for meaning. Admittedly, to a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic or to one whose only concept of the human condition is sadly limited to the more cerebral and intellectual facets of this wonderful phenomenon that we human beings are, synchronicity will be a mere crazy hypothesis without any substantiation. I suppose the same could be said of belief in God.

This piece of writing that is shaping itself under the touch of my keyboard is a testimonial to humankind’s desire for meaning, for shape and for form to what would, without such a desire for such meaning, shape and form, be a dry world or even a universe of veritable automata. Where would all the arts, if not the sciences themselves, (and I use the term science in its broadest sense of that term, not just as delimited to observable data in a laboratory, but also to social sciences and to all forms of knowledge that attempt to grapple with the phenomenon that humankind is and with the reality of the world/universe that he/she is confronted with.) be without such a desire for meaning? Whether any such meanings in themselves can ever be proven as true and verifiable, (e.g., Does God exist? Is life meaningful? What is Truth? What is knowledge in se? Does the Man in The Moon Exist? Does Heaven or Hell exist? Do Angels/Devils exist?) does not really matter at all. What matters is the very desire for such meanings, patterns and forms in the first place. Like all good journeys it is the fun and support through troubles along the way that counts. Whether anything or anybody is there at the end does not matter a whit. What amuses and uplifts me is the variety of such meanings men and women construct to make their journey through life that much more bearable. In the end it is getting through that matters. All the rest is merely hot air!

Art, of course, is one way of constructing meaning. Above I have placed a picture I took of some art work from the Art Room as school.

No comments: