You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. Albert Camus
Have you noticed a preoccupation with discovering the meaning of life? Meaning making is a great human endeavour. We witness people go on soul journeys, sea changes or pilgrimages to discover themselves and their place in the world, to seek answers and meaning. We hunger to be part of something. There exists a gnawing unrelenting need when we lack community, a sense of belonging and purpose. The sense that life is meaningless could be the most desolate of thoughts. Desolate is the one who finds themselves alone, unattached, adrift in life.
This phenomenon, I imagine, has always existed though there seems to me to be an intensification in recent times, a swell of seekers. My limited view and observations lead me to believe this is a side effect borne mainly by those in western cultures. Could it be due to a lack of traditions, of ritual, of religion, of an intimacy and belief in story and myth? Professor of sociology, John Carroll suggests there is an emerging poverty in western cultures due to a move away from myth.
Myths have been central to all cultures. I recently listened to Saga Land, a radio podcast by Richard Fidler, about the Icelandic sagas. These stories have endured for centuries and link the people to their ancestors and heritage. My childhood was full of the stories of the Australian Dreamtime. The stories, songs and dance of the traditional owners of the country I call home still captivate and educate me. I was educated in catholic schools and am familiar with many Christian myths.
Why are myths important? Why might a lack of myth in our life affect us so very much?
Myths are enduring, they are rich with metaphorical weight. Myths give us a sense of ourselves in relation to others. Hugh Mackay, author and social researcher, deduces that myth and story help us identify where we place our faith and that faith unites us and equips us to live with doubt and uncertainty. Through his research he has found that humans yearn something beyond the material, something other than themselves to use as a reference point to draw strength from, something that inspires them.
Religion and attending church used to fill that yearning, satisfy the hunger, give us something to inspire us and provide a sense of community. The role of religion has been to provide potent narratives to guide us along our journey to discover meaning. Interestingly only 8% of Australians are regular church goers. Why have so many turned away from the church? Perhaps it’s because the myths and narratives are served up as doctrine and often expected to be swallowed whole. For me, my move away from the church was the incongruence between doctrine and the behaviours of those most strongly advocating it. Mackay has found that dogma definitely divides us. He advocates faith beyond dogma.
I can attest that faith can exist without a literal adherence to dogma. I can also attest to the desire for community. While my faith is strong I do not worship in a church and I do at times crave to be part of a community. For a time I found it in a group of like-minded souls. We learned together, we practiced ritual, we communed and we grew individually and as a group. It was quenching. It was so deeply satisfying I wanted for nothing more. We eventually drifted apart, each to go their own way to continue our individual journeys. I miss that gathering of minds and souls. I miss the kinship.
It’s fascinating this hardwired need in humans to have a story that keeps the darkness at bay and to satisfy our longing to belong. It is, I believe, the impetus for the great human endeavour – to seek meaning and purpose in life.