Your wellbeing needs the meaning of life

Simon Smart on how to find purpose and lasting perspective

Social researcher Hugh Mackay’s latest book, Australia Reimagined, paints a picture of a country the author loves but has grave concerns for. We are a sick society, writes Mackay: “overanxious, overweight, overmedicated and financially overstretched.”

The stats are not pretty. One-third of us are likely to be affected by mental illness in our lives. In any one year, two million will experience an anxiety disorder and one million will battle depression. An astonishing 65–70,000 Australians will attempt suicide each year. We are also more self-absorbed, more competitive and more socially fragmented than ever, according to Mackay.

“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist …” – Jean-Paul Sartre

How did we get here? There are, of course, multiple factors that Mackay identifies, as well as a number of potential solutions. One of these solutions is the power of faith. While Mackay doesn’t necessarily lament the loss of religious faith, he does highlight the power of religion to establish a sense of meaning in our lives—enlarging our perspective and giving us “a kind of borrowed strength.”

It may well be that such a firm foundation is what is missing for so many people today, leading to a loss of meaning. The philosopher Leon Kass believes that modern life is characterised by such a lack, and alludes to the loss of God as central to the dilemma: “As the curtain begins to descend on the twentieth century, we who find ourselves still on the stage are, truth to tell, more than a little befuddled about how to act and what to think.”

“To be sure, we seem to speak our lines and play our parts no less than did our ancestors. But we barely remember the name of the drama, much less its meaning or purpose.

“The playwright is apparently dead and cannot be consulted as to his original intention. Cultural memory still holds gingerly a tattered script, but many of its pages are missing and the guidance it provides us is barely audible and, even then, delivered in what appears to us to be a foreign tongue. Armed with new-fangled, electronically delivered images and phrases, we are never at a loss for words. But we are at a loss for meaning.”

Twentieth-century atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre understood this loss, writing that “everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.”

It was Sartre’s view that once we have lost God as the infinite reference point, we have nothing eternal to measure our journey by, and it thus becomes hard to know if we are doing anything meaningful at all.

As a society, we are good at distracting ourselves from these fundamental questions …

Sartre would find something in common with the writer of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which begins and ends with a summary of the human condition, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” That might not sound very encouraging but stay with me.

The word “meaningless” here is the Hebrew word, hebel, meaning vapour or breath, something that’s insubstantial and temporary. It’s used 38 times in Ecclesiastes. It’s a big theme. Everything is transitory, nothing lasts. It’s here and then it’s gone. And so are we.

“What does a man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?” writes Solomon. The phrase “under the sun” is a key refrain (used 27 times) in Ecclesiastes, and leans towards the idea that “under the sun” all our activity, all our busyness and dreams and hopes, if there is no God, are ultimately meaningless.

But only if there is no God. In chapter 3 we read, “I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race, he has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The mysteries of human existence remain at some level unfathomable, and yet, it is universally true that people do live as if life has meaning. God has placed “eternity in our hearts” and we long for, and deep down believe, that our lives matter in some way beyond just the arranging of particles and firing of neurons.

As a society, we are good at distracting ourselves from these fundamental questions but they inevitably reassert themselves. And when they do, that is when the Christian faith speaks loudest. Jesus declared the kingdom of God had arrived in him. According to this claim, there is a mysterious sense in which this kingdom is both present now, and yet remains a future hope. That might explain how our unfulfilled longings jostle alongside our stubborn conviction that life ought to mean something.

It also means that there is eternal significance in all that we do. That includes grand projects we might embark upon just as much as it does the small and mundane. Such a perspective may well be the missing piece in the puzzle of our faltering modern efforts to find enduring meaning and the higher purpose that Hugh Mackay, among others, recognises as essential to our wellbeing.

Simon Smart is a Director of Centre for Public Christianity.

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