Man is doomed to the eternal search for identity and meaning in a fundamentally meaningless world. Notwithstanding the progress made on the debate about the true nature of man, our thirst for meaning seems to endure whatever cultural mood swings and paradigm shifts the world and history have, and will, undergo.
In individualistic societies like the West, the onus is on the individual to find his identity and meaning. But without societal recognition of the identity and meaning he has constructed for himself, the individual will find it much difficult to embrace himself as valuable. No wonder identity politics has been sweeping campuses in the West.
Meanwhile, in highly collectivistic Asian cultures, it is society that attributes meaning and identity to its subjects. Everyone is bounded by the role — and its corresponding duties and responsibilities — ascribed to him by society. This predisposes individuals from collectivistic societies to existential anxiety when uprooted from their cultural moorings.
This is why overseas Chinese communities tend to band together in Chinatowns in an effort to recreate their comfort zones, thereby reconstructing their sense of self in foreign lands where they are the minority. It’s also why Filipinos tend to be cliquish and find comfort and solace when they meet compatriots overseas.
But, whichever culture we came from, the search for meaning is humanity’s common ground. But why is man hardwired to find a raison d’être?
The most widely cited body of work on man’s search for purpose and meaning is that of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1992) who has stated, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is meaning in life.”
To Frankl, the intransigent nature of our search for meaning gives us not just a reason to keep going despite the ubiquity of pain and suffering in life, but a coping mechanism to change our existential circumstances by redefining our life’s meaning. With a new sense of responsibility, one can redirect and refocus his life.
This is one of the allures of the invention of god and religion: they quench their believers’ thirst for purpose and meaning. This might also answer the question as to why poverty and lack of meaning-inducing opportunities in excessively religious societies breed terrorism and extremism.
On reflection, the search for meaning is our best survival strategy in this TikTok-crazy, anxiety-driven world. Not only does it give us the comfort of “second chances” and constant self-reinvention, it incentivizes us to try new things and venture in new horizons until we “find” our objet petit a. Or until we die.
So… should I kill myself or trim my pubes?
Tonight — just for tonight — I choose hygiene.