Finding Purpose in Uncertain Times

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

As our modern times become ever-more chaotic, the fear of loneliness and uncertainty becomes an increasingly prominent feature in our life.

Moral certainties have turned into lines drawn in the sand and community is washed away by the waves of individualism, clearing the slate for us to write and write our own life stories.

Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, the superiority of the church eroded, neighborhoods turned into sterile suburban refuges, and the nuclear family gave way to a plethora of novel household possibilities.

We are now free from Rousseau’s chains of tradition. We are born free and we will live free.

No longer dominated by the church, we are free to further science. No longer confined to a traditional family, we are free to form households that better fit with our unique desires.

Free from moral certitudes, our desires burst into infinity. We explore the dark corners of our subjectivity, experiment with our bodies, and seek self-identity in a multitude of fleeting social groups.

Life has exploded with complexity, yet, our fundamental desire remains the same; we just want to be happy. But now, more than ever, happiness does not bring certainty, just as certainty does not bring happiness.

We have become artists of our own lines in the sand. Amidst the tides of modernity, we are tasked with redrawing ourselves again and again, but we need to remember that we can’t do it alone.

Uncertain Community 

As the late Marina Keegan describes this in her book The Opposite of Loneliness,

“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team… Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights when we stumble home to our computers – partnerless, tired, awake.”

Unlike traditional community life, modern community is something we are responsible for forging ourselves. We find a fleeting sense of community life in our hobbies, memberships, and casual associations.

Community is ever-more fluid. Like joining a gym, you find yourself surrounded by the same people for a little while, only to find a new rotation of members the following year.

But even in these fleeting communities, if we are lucky, we can find a sense of meaning. As Marina Keegan states, “an abundance of people who are in this together”.

Uncertain Love

As our modern times become ever-more chaotic, the fear of being alone becomes an increasingly prominent feature in our life.

In The Normal Chaos of Love, Sociologists Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim explore how romantic love is both a bastion of uncertainty, and a place of refuge. Love itself has become increasingly chaotic in modern times with the loss of clear-cut courtship rituals.

In this age of uncertainty we are primarily driven to find and hold onto romantic love out of a fear of loneliness in a world lacking communal bonds.

In the absence of meaning, we seek fulfillment in a romantic partner. According to Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim:

Some powerful force has pushed its way in and filled up the gap where, according to previous generations, God, country, class, politics or family were supposed to hold sway. I am what matters: I, and You as my assistant; and if not You then some other You.

Seeking love in the intensity of Eros should not be equated with fulfillment, states Beck:

That is its glowing side, the physical thrill…. How easily having one’s hopes fulfilled can turn into a chilly gaze! Were only a moment ago overwhelming urgency made a knotted tangle of two walking taboos, merging me and you, all boundaries gone, now we are staring at one another with critical eyes, rather like meat inspectors, or even butchers who see the sausages where others see cattle and pigs.

Released from traditional norms, our desire to seek fulfillment in a loving relationship because “other social bonds seem too tenuous and unreliable.”

As this desire grows with increasing individualization, its fulfillment is more difficult to attain amidst the ever-growing emphasis on the thrill of Eros.

Expanding on Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim’s characterization of love as a means to peruse, a happy “life of one’s own” in our culture of “do-it-yourself lifestyles,”

He goes on, in The Art of Love, to state that humans are in search of a lost union with nature. We have developed large brains, giving us a high degree of self-consciousness and awareness of our own mortality. This creates an existential need for meaning in our lives which was the source of religious life. In modern times, market capitalism took the place of religion as the central organizing force:

“Modern man has transformed himself into a commodity; he experiences his life energy as an investment with which he should make the highest profit, considering his position and the situation on the personality market. He is alienated from himself, from his fellow men and from nature.”

Just like uncertain market forces, love has become a normal chaos. Dating apps give us powerful technological tools to market ourselves to potential partners. Hookup culture has been institutionalized and fire of eros burns bright.

We are liberated from the shackles of tradition, able to peruse our unique passions in places forbidden by fading taboos. But In order to balance the potentially lonely price of freedom, we need to find meaning in Agape – a form of altruistic love that requires commitment and ongoing effort.

Kahlil Gibran said, “work is love made visible;” but love is also work made visible.

Eros without agape is lustful, while agape without Eros is ascetic. Romantic love requires the fiery passion of Eros, but amidst the institutionalized chaos of contemporary life, we must not lose sight of loyalty and commitment.

When Eros and Agape come together, Self-fulfillment is a byproduct of self-giving; not in the form of submission or domination, but as equals who respect one another and genuinely care for each other’s well-being.

This way, love can weather the darkest of life’s storms, giving refuge to those who seek solace amidst the chaos.

Uncertainty in the Professional World

Traditionally, transitions throughout the life-course have been guided by clear social expectations or rites of passage. These expectations still exist but are not nearly as clear-cut as they once were.

A post-secondary student is often expected to seek employment and an eventual marital partner after graduation, but unlike the times of highly gendered courtship rituals and readily available local careers, there are often no clear paths to follow in the transition from studenthood to professional life.

Rather than a handful of job offers, many recent graduates are forced to get creative, volunteering, moving away, or picking up applied skills with extra college courses. The strict codes of conduct that guided the life-course have been reduced to a single moral imperative: to offer value to society without harming others. This is the imperative of modern liberalism.

Modern liberalism is a double-edged sword. Its benefit is that it allows for greater social mobility, equality between diverse lifestyles, and a wider array of opportunities for individuals to pursue their unique passions. This is the modern idea of the ‘life-project’. The catch is that this modern project lacks a clear template.

As long as the individual does not pose too much of a risk to others, they will have an infinite number of opportunities to restart or change paths. This can seem quite liberating compared to the traditional one-size-fits-all life-template. Although it is liberating, the drawback is that individuals are tasked with the responsibility to figure out the direction of their project on their own, without being prepared to take on this responsibility.

Each generation experiences a gap between themselves and their parents. Just as the baby boomers experienced a significant change from the courtship expectations of their parents, children of the baby boomers are experiencing their key distinction in the transition to the work world.

The traditional school-system taught this generation’s children and adolescents that is they follow rules and perform well on tests, everything will be okay – but this is far from the case in today’s entrepreneurial economy where the rules are minimum, factual knowledge is readily accessible by simple Google searches, and success is strictly measured by the amount of value you can offer an organization.

Rather than the ability to memorize factual knowledge and follow rules, creativity and the ability to put knowledge to work are the prized possessions in today’s work world.

There is a gap between what is required to succeed in the professional world and what is taught in elementary school, high-school, and even many university programs.

The ability to sit attentively through lectures and memorize facts for an exam are not the skills we should be instilling in a generation whose major challenge is finding a creative way to offer value. The professional world requires more than obedient automatons who can regurgitate a benign set of facts they will shortly forget after an exam.

I very frequently encounter students in the social sciences struggling with the idea of writing an essay based on their own analysis of a problem. Far too many students are deeply uncomfortable coming up with an innovative idea – even in their final years of university. Today’s professional world requires innovators and problem-solvers, people who know how to use knowledge to make a positive change.

In the wake of large-scale economic uncertainty, education at all levels needs to support the new imperative to creatively offer value by taking responsibility for one’s individual life-project.

Conclusion 

Finding meaning in our uncertain modern times requires accepting the uncertainty and finding creative solutions to life’s problems.

It requires taking responsibility for our lives, forging a sense of community, and making ourselves useful, amidst an ever-changing economic landscape.

Although the chaotic nature of modern life is not our individual responsibility, we are still responsible for building our own sense of meaning and purpose.

If you would like to read more about building a sense of purpose, you can check out my article: What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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11 Comments

    • Blue Zephyr

      A very enjoyable read, thank you.

      Reply
  1. katharineotto

    Well put. I’d like to offer that it’s not just people. Look at people and their pets. Or those, like me, who look to nature for a sense of belonging and meaningfulness. Nature costs nothing and is available to rich and poor alike.

    Reply
  2. hughcurtler

    Barbara Kingsolver, in “Pigs In Heaven,” nicely contrasts the Cherokee community, despite its poverty, with the world around it. The one has the sense of community, the other lacks it. The one is much happier than the other.

    Reply
  3. NicoLite Великий

    Yet so many people flee their freedom and subject themselves to the wills of more powerful individuals. The more things change, the more they stay the same

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Exactly.. “Escape from freedom” by Erich Fromm is a good book on this phenomenon.

      Reply
  4. michaelmoorevancouver

    Reblogged this on crowdCONNX and commented:
    Beautifully drawn sense of futility at the idea of happiness yet offers some hope within small communities. Bravo.

    Reply
  5. michaelmoorevancouver

    Bravo. Do you think that only small communities such as you described are the only answer to the complex issues you’ve touched on or can we find similar help within larger communities?

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      I think both. Although there is a trend toward small communities and flexible networks, many individuals still find a strong sense of community in traditional institutions such as the church and the military.

      Reply
  6. kendunning

    Thanks, great insight on our modern plight.

    Reply

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