Many years after the birth of the United States, a man from France named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America. He wanted to observe for himself what caused thousands of people to flock to America and how it continued to thrive with no monarchal government. Upon arriving and touring the country, he was enthralled with the engaging civic life of the American citizens as well as their zeal and commitment to virtue and self-governance.
“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
To some, de Tocqueville’s description hardly sounds like America today.
Americans today are often described as increasingly depressed, anxious, and addicted. Younger people have nearly given up on marriage, children born into single-parent households seems the norm, and rates of suicide have been skyrocketing.
So what is happening? Why does it feel like the fibers that hold our society together are being ripped apart?
That’s a tough question to answer definitively and authoritatively and cannot be boiled down to one root cause. Many thought leaders and members of the media have tried to answer the question, pinning such problems as products of bullying, not enough government, too much government, bigotry, racism, etc.
However, these causal theories are shallow and don’t get to the heart of the issue.
The Crisis Of Meaning
What America is currently experiencing is a crisis of meaning.
People no longer feel fulfilled. They are not discovering their reason for existence and pursuing it. Everyone is chasing happiness for the moment and thereby sacrificing meaning and purpose in the future. All of the aforementioned problems are really just symptoms of the larger issue, which is a lack of meaning and purpose.
How did we even get here?
That question, too, is not so easy to answer. But some of the prevailing notions and philosophies of the day can be partly to blame:
“You do you.”
“You have to do what makes you happy.”
“Speak your truth.”
“You’re perfect the way you are.”
The underlying philosophy of those tired clichés is that the only thing that matters is you, your feelings, and your happiness, which is a recipe for disaster.
Dr. Jordan Peterson To The Rescue
In his book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To The Chaos, the famed Dr. Jordan Peterson argues that only serving or promoting your own immediate self-interest/happiness (
“Expedience- that’s hiding all the skeletons in the closet. That’s covering the blood you just pilled with a carpet. That’s avoiding responsibility. It’s cowardly, and shallow, and wrong. It’s wrong because mere expedience, multiplied by many repetitions, produces the character of a demon. It’s wrong because expedience merely transfers the curse on your head to someone else, or to your future self, in a manner that will make your future, and the future generally, worse instead of better.”
Peterson continues on why the pursuit of meaning is more important than chasing “happiness.”
“There is no faith and no courage and no sacrifice in doing what is expedient. There is no careful observation that actions and presuppositions matter, or that the world is made of what matters. To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may neither know what you want, nor what you truly need…”
He is right. Happiness, or instantaneous gratification, is driven by the prevailing interests of the day. Happiness and desire do not always coincide with what is important or what is meaningful. Additionally, you
Why commit to marriage when you can get what makes you happy and back out at any time?
If your job presents challenges, quit and take a new one.
If someone you love presents a difference of opinion that you find offensive, cut them off rather than working out your differences.
It’s no wonder we’re depressed and anxious. No one knows how to get going when the going gets tough.
For far too long, our society has been chasing expedience, which has handicapped people for life. No one has any self-confidence, because they have never actually achieved anything worthwhile. In order to be successful in life and find that self-confidence, we must be willing to face the dragon or the demons that haunt us. It is in the facing of challenges that we find ourselves and discover what is truly meaningful.
To quote Dr. Peterson again, “Meaning signifies that you are in the right place, at the right time, properly balanced between order and chaos, where everything lines up as best it can at that moment.”
So how does one actually find meaning and purpose?
If you think that you will discover meaning and purpose or you will “find yourself” by traveling to some exotic place, stop thinking those thoughts right now. While I am a fan of traveling, the only thing that really changes when you travel is your location. The problems you had when you left are waiting for you when you arrive.
The only real way to find meaning and fulfillment in your life is by obtaining self respect through responsibility and accountability.
Here are a few things you can do:
1) Give Yourself More Responsibility
Find ways that you can increase your responsibility. Cook your own food rather than going out. Make your bed every day. Learn a new skill. Do something that you can keep yourself accountable to. This doesn’t have to be anything big, but it can be. When you are able to be responsible for something and succeed at doing that thing, your sense of worth will increase.
2) Ask Your Boss For More Responsibility
In your job, ask your boss if you can take on more responsibility. I know that when I’m not being challenged enough, I tend to get bored and feel like I’m floundering with no direction. It might sound silly to ask your boss for MORE things to do, but if you rise to the occasion, not only is it a great reason to get ask for a raise, but it will also help you feel like you’re actually creating value in the company you work for.
Like Dr. Peterson says- we have to find the right balance between order and chaos where we’re competent enough but also challenged enough. When we fall to either side, we don’t find any meaning or fulfillment.
3) When Challenges Come, Face Them Head On
It is by facing and conquering unexpected challenges that we gain respect for ourselves and find the meaning in our lives. If we continually cower in fear or avoid challenging situations, how can we ever expect to have confidence and respect ourselves? Where is the meaning in that?
Resolving disputes, having difficult conversations, standing up for what is right or what you believe, etc. If we don’t push back against the forces of entropy in the Universe, how can we ever expect to find meaning?
Commit to that relationship.
Stick with that job even though it’s hard.
Work things out with the person you disagree with.
4) Get Off Social Media
Although social media can be fun and it seems like we’re missing out if we’re not on it, there isn’t much in the way of meaning to be found on those intentionally addictive platforms.
What makes America great does not come from Washington. It does not come from politicians. It does not come from Corporate America.
America is great because she is good. The goodness of her citizens is what makes her great. My fear is that we have forgotten how to be good. Many of us have forgotten what g
If we are to survive as a society and as a nation, we must focus on the things that bring us meaning rather than instant gratification, or else we may be relegated to the dustbin of history.