A Short Work Featured in Belonging Again by O.G. Rose
The Meaning Crisis as a Sign of Hope
The issue isn’t so much that we lack answers on how to solve it, but that we are holding ourselves to a higher standard. We would rather go down fighting than betray our convictions.
“The Meaning Crisis,” as John Vervaeke calls it, is a pressing problem which is discussed extensively throughout O.G. Rose. “Explained and Addressed” focuses on it, and Belonging Again is a sociological exploration of the consequences civilization faces when it lacks “givens” according to which it can organize its actions (for good and for bad). Our situation is arguably dire, as I agree there is reason to think, but here I want to suggest a way that the crisis can be seen in a more positive light. Here, I want to argue that the Meaning Crisis partially exists because humanity no longer settles for old solutions, which is to say that we now hold ourselves to higher standards.
We often discuss the Meaning Crisis like civilization walked down a few roads, took a wrong turn, and now finds itself at a dead end. We turn around and find the way we came closed off. We’re stuck, and we have no idea what to do. Metaphorically, at least, this is how I think most of us think about the Meaning Crisis: it strikes us as a room we can’t escape, hopeless. But I submit that this is not the case: we in fact do know how to solve the Meaning Crisis. We have centuries of examples, and we could employ them whenever we liked. In fact, some groups of people and tribes are employing “classic solutions” to the problem, but many of us view those people as doing something wrong and immoral. It’s not that we don’t know how to solve the Meaning Crisis; instead, it’s that we refuse to solve the Crisis as civilizations in the past did. What do I mean? Well, just look back on history: there are lots of solutions to the Meaning Crisis. Here are some examples:
I could go on. All of these are live options for us right now, but because we don’t accept these “solutions” anymore, we are suffering a Meaning Crisis. I think this is an important framing, because we tend to view the Meaning Crisis as purely negative, as a kind of dilemma resulting from careless stupidity — whenever the topic comes up, the tone is one that reflects a sentiment of, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” (that’s how I hear it, at least). I would like to complexify that framing and suggest that, arguably thanks to a moral evolution, we have chosen to suffer our crisis. It is not simply something we have stumbled carelessly into, but something we have chosen to suffer because we demand ourselves to do better. Perhaps this puts us in a situation where we never overcome the Meaning Crisis (I don’t know), but if this is the case, I think we can view ourselves as willing to “go down fighting” versus resort back to racism, nationalism, and other past sins.
The counter to this could be that we really can’t choose racism, war, closed-mindedness, or the like anymore, because our civilization has advanced to a place where these options are thankfully no longer allowed, but that only strengthens the point: these options are possible but not accepted. We have imposed a restriction on ourselves. Now, today, these options are a “yes/no,” meaning we “could” do them and yet won’t “allow” ourselves to do them. We are like people in the past standing up for justice who “could” have back downed when the powerful told them to withdraw and yet wouldn’t “allow” themselves to backdown, aware that they would lose the fight for righteousness and justice if they did. Similarly, we really could indulge in nationalism and bigotry if we let the Meaning Crisis get to us, but we are doing everything in power to not allow ourselves to give into that temptation. We’re fighting. We’re fighting to keep the gains we’ve made through history.
A key concern of O.G. Rose has been to find new sources of meaning for our Globalized and Pluralist world (centered often on the question of “intrinsic motivation”), because I do not deny that “The Meaning Crisis” requires us to find such sources. Indeed, we are existentially suffering as a result of losing meaning, as reflected in our collapsing mental health. Again, I don’t mean to deny that: here, I simply want to suggest that there is something hopeful and noble about “The Meaning Crisis”: its existence is a testament to our unwillingness to compromise on what we believe is right.
(Moving forward, please note that I will be speaking in generalities, for indeed there are people today “giving into the temptations” of previous “solutions.” Mainly, I want to highlight the nobility of resisting the temptations even if that leaves us existentially destabilized and alone.)
The need for meaning is not new. Every civilization has had to find ways to “address the problem of meaning”: we are not alone. Today, it’s just that the “old ways” are no longer acceptable to us, and as a result we aren’t solving our need for meaning anymore. When we think of our Meaning Crisis as something new and never before seen in human civilization, it becomes easy to think we made “a wrong turn somewhere” and now find ourselves stuck in a place we cannot escape. Metaphorically thinking this way, the feeling that “we’re doomed” comes naturally, but fortunately I think this is the wrong way to think about our situation. Instead of thinking we’re in a prison cell with no key, it’s better to think of the prison as one we could escape whenever we wanted, but instead, for our principles and morals, we refuse the invitations of our capturer to leave. We simply won’t accept his current terms.
In the past, people once found meaning by identifying strongly with their nation state. This was the solution of Nationalism that we have learned can give rise to fascism and totalitarianism. Though we accept patriotism, we no longer accept this option.
Fundamentalism was also once an option, which was for people to simplify the complexity of the world into basic premises and see everything in terms of “black and white.” Fundamentalism ignores nuance and treats “difference” as foolish, and this could motivate racism and worse. Though we accept convictions, we no longer accept “closed-mindedness” that ignores and disregards complexity.
Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and other forms of “unjustified hierarchy creation” were also ways that people found meaning, for they could see themselves as “at least not being ‘them’ ” and/or atop a social order. Exclusivity can make us feel special, and “creating divisions” are ways to increase exclusivity. Though we today accept distinctions, we no longer accept discrimination that privileges people at the expense of others.
The world makes a lot more sense if we don’t think about it and seek isolationism, a place where we are not bothered, but this also entails ignoring complexity, forgoing responsibility, and abandoning the world to its own devices. It is to give up on finding deeper truths and to cease trying to make the world a better place. Though we today accept the need for quiet and meditation, we no longer accept “giving up” on solving the problems we face as a species and leaving everything up to the gods or fate.
War and violence are ways by which the strong can also be “the best” and see themselves as such: they can seize for themselves everything they want and give themselves a purpose in carrying out that seizure. We can force everyone to look up to us, and we can “practically” become a god. Though we today perhaps accept the potential of power to bring about positive change and even the need for self-defense, we no longer accept colonialism, domination, and force as valid ways to organize societies.
I could go on, but the point I want to stress is that our crisis of meaning results at least partially from our convictions against wrongs. Yes, perhaps we can take some of these “convictions” too far and throw out all of religion in our stance against “fundamentalism,” or overlook the need for “funding a military” (say to protect minorities from being oppressed by terrorists) in our stance against war, but the presence of convictions shouldn’t be overlooked. Even when these convictions are wrongly implemented and cause us problems, they are still evidence of an effort to “do what’s right.” For that, I think we should give ourselves credit.
The paper “Explained and Addressed” by O.G. Rose argued that today we feel “explained away” because we don’t feel “addressed,” but it should be noted that all of the “strategies” described above would solve this problem of ours. Once we view ourselves at the top of a racial caste system, our need for feeling important will be “addressed”; once we establish ourselves as the most powerful group around through violence, we will feel like people see us; once we close off our minds to ideas that challenge us, our desire for existential stability will be gained; once we allow ourselves to be pulled into a conspiracy, we will feel like we “know the truth” and have a purpose; and so on. For us, “solving the Meaning Crisis” is not simply about “solving our crisis of meaning” with just any solution, but with a solution that meets our moral standards. Considering this, we can start to see the Meaning Crisis as not just a bad thing, but also partially a good sign too.
Unfortunately, the longer we “holdout” to find a moral solution to our crisis of meaning, the greater the pressure and temptation will become for us to accept an immoral solution from the past. This pressure is perhaps getting to more people each day, hence the growing movements favoring totalitarianism, uniformity, conspiratorial thinking, and the like. But millions of people are still resisting these temptations and “holding out” for something that doesn’t make us morally compromise ourselves, and we should view this effort as resulting from a “noble commitment” versus finding ourselves at a “dead end” from which we cannot find a way out. For me, this “reframing” of “The Meaning Crisis” makes it easier to keep going. There’s hope in it, for I find hope in knowing that much of humanity would rather suffer and even perish than compromise on what’s right. “The Meaning Crisis” can be seen as evidence that there’s good in us. Unlike some critics of Postmodernism suggest, “goodness” has not lost all meaning.
The problem of meaning is constant through history, as has been the problem of food, shelter, reproduction, and the like. Perhaps in the past because “basic survival” was so difficult, the very act of feeding the family was “meaningful enough” to fill our existential needs, which is to say that, in the past, fixing a meal “killed two birds with one stone.” Now, since food is relatively easy to get, and “eating” generally no longer thought of by the society as “a difficult task,” filling our bellies and filling our existential needs have been separated. This means we have “more to do” to feel complete, and it is while faced with that challenge that a crisis of meaning can emerge. When it does, we can be tempted to solve the crisis by betraying our ethics.
We are suffering a crisis of meaning not simply because past generations were wiser than us and we more “Postmodern,” relativistic, and foolish, but because past civilizations were more comfortable with options that we no longer accept. Yes, certainly, “relativism” and the destabilization of “givens” under Pluralism is a very big part of the story, and we somehow have to figure out how to address that problem (as “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose argues). However, it should be noted that the “destabilization of givens” alone wouldn’t have caused us “The Meaning Crisis” if we also didn’t disqualify certain options from consideration because we now view them as immoral and/or outdated.
Our age isn’t the only age in which “givens” have been destabilized, for arguably every age where the economy has undergone a profound change, where there has been a war, where there has been a change in religious thinking, and like, has entailed a similar destabilization. However, our age might be the first to have undergone this destabilization and not allowed itself to indulge any of the options previously considered valid. If this is the case, we can start to see “The Meaning Crisis” as evidence of moral advancement and self-imposed for the sake of doing what’s right.
Please do not mistake me as claiming that everything in the past was immoral and that we shouldn’t consider anything from the past as a potential source for wisdom, guidance, and the like: I, for one, think we have gone too far in our dismissal of philosophy, metaphysics, and theology, as we have been too eager to disown the ideas of past thinkers we see as “outdated.” If there are “moral solutions” to our crisis of meaning, I strongly believe that material for those solutions will, partially at least, be found in ancient sources, so please do not understand me as supporting a “progressive fantasy” of some kind. Rather, my point is only that there are many “social strategies” for managing “the problem of meaning” that we today no longer accept, and that this commitment against those strategies is a significant component for why “The Meaning Crisis” is even a crisis.
It is not that we have stumbled into a dead end with no road out, or that we are locked in a room without a key — our inability is self-imposed, because we view the available options as wrong. Past generations didn’t find these options wrong, and so they did not suffer a crisis of meaning like we do. We, however, have raised our standards, and for that evolution we are paying the price. Instead of a child who has found himself lost in the forest without any idea of how to escape — what I believe is the common metaphoric understanding of “The Meaning Crisis” — I would argue that, from another angle, we are more like Thomas More being offered freedom by King Henry if only he will accept Henry’s annulment, or Malala refusing to follow orders from the Taliban. Both More and Malala suffer for their refused to “give in,” but there is something grand and noble about their refusal.
Personally speaking, realizing that “the problem of meaning” is as old as humanity, and that we are suffering and experiencing the need acutely due to our refusal to use old and immoral solutions, helps me live with it. I am not stuck in a room I cannot escape, for I could escape it anytime, in the same way that Thomas More could escape execution by granting King Henry the annulment. Instead, I am choosing not to escape by a way that would have me repeat the wrongs of the past. I’m looking for a new way, a way I am still trying to figure out. That way may ultimately not exist — there is a real risk here — and the longer I look without finding the answer, the more intense and difficult the pains and tensions of “The Meaning Crisis” will become for me.
With time, the temptations to give in and use “old solutions” grow stronger, and unfortunately the internet makes it increasingly easy to find people who will support us if we return to nationalism, bigotry, closed-mindedness, fundamentalism, and the like — at any moment, of any day, we can escape the Meaning Crisis into the accepting arms of people who will tell us we have done nothing wrong. With time, in their arms, we might even be able to forget that we gave into a temptation: we might genuinely be able to believe that we made a good choice. Considering all this only adds to the temptation to escape the Meaning Crisis by appealing to “old solutions,” but we must keep fighting. It’s better to suffer for what’s right than prosper from what’s wrong.
“Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose elaborates on The Death of Character by Dr. James Hunter and explains why the loss of “givens” makes it so difficult to meaningfully “stand up for something” that isn’t relativized into mere preference or “moral platitudes.” Character seems gone today, a lost possibility, but I’m starting to wonder if there might be hope for it. Once I think about “The Meaning Crisis” as “a problem that has always been with us” and resulting from a noble refusal to accept “old solutions,” our very suffering of the Meaning Crisis starts to feel noble and heroic. We can be seen like Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for our beliefs and principles, or Malala, shot by the Taliban for doing what’s right. “The Meaning Crisis” can be seen as a price we pay for our beliefs, and there is something inspiring and charactered about paying that price.
Now, please don’t mistake me: I think we need to keep searching for a solution to the Meaning Crisis, and hopefully the works of O.G. Rose aid in this search. There is nothing wrong with More or Bonhoeffer accepting freedom from their imprisonment if they can do so without compromising their principles, and it is not wrong for anyone to try to save their lives on the right terms. So, again, please do not mistake me as saying that we should accept “The Meaning Crisis” and not try to do anything about it. Rather, I am saying that we should not metaphorically think of our crisis of meaning as a room we cannot escape. We can escape, and we know how, but we do not accept the terms. Instead, we’d rather face the existential anxiety resulting from trying to love our country without treating it like a religious idol, from accepting the complexity of life versus simplify it into fundamental premises (which requires taking on everything The True Isn’t the Rational trilogy explores), from us accepting different races, worldviews, cultures, and the like. We are committed to not using violence to escape our existential crisis, though we easily could. For this restraint, we are suffering, but that suffering is noble.
The hope of this short work has been simply to offer a “new way of seeing” our crisis of meaning so that we might hold onto hope and not fall into despair. Hope matters, but only if that hope doesn’t arise out of wrongs and immoralities. Suffering a loss of meaning, we must refuse to accept “cheap hopes” like those found in nationalism or conspiracies, and instead cling to the “costly hope” (to allude to Bonhoeffer) that comes from sticking to our principles and believing that, if we keep working at it, things can work out. Perhaps things won’t — perhaps in the end those who gave into the temptations of bigotry, nationalism, fundamentalism, and closed-mindedness will find meaning in their lives while we never find a “new solution” to the meaning crisis which doesn’t compromise our beliefs and morals — but I still think it’s best to do what’s right. Perhaps this is the way today we can be martyrs, and in seeing ourselves as willing to be “martyred” by not accepting immoral and “cheap” solutions to the Meaning Crisis, perhaps in that very act we can find meaning. I think we can: I think seeing “The Meaning Crisis” as resulting from standing up for what’s right can help us feel like life is meaningful. In this way, embracing our crisis could be the act of solving it.