If we are to survive suffering then we have to find meaning in it, says Viktor Frankl. It’s not happiness that’s going to get through life (or the search for happiness) but a sense of meaning, says Jordan Peterson. The search for happiness actually brings nothing else but misery, precisely because it is a meaningless thing to do! This is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough – if we are to survive suffering, we must find meaning in it, but for the Extrinsic Self – which is who we think we are – there can never be any meaning in suffering.
The only meaning that the Extrinsic Self can find in suffering – if it is to be perfectly honest, which it never is – is that suffering is an unqualified bad disaster, that it is bad news without any ‘silver lining’. For the ES suffering is an unmitigated evil, something to be avoided at all costs; for the ego-identity, if we’re suffering then all this means is that we have lost the game, that we are a loser! Thus, who we generally take ourselves to be cannot find any transcendental meaning in suffering, and so if it wants meaning then the only thing it can do is make it up for itself. It has to pretend, it has to play a game.
‘Who we take ourselves to be’ can’t ever find genuine meaning in suffering, just as it can’t find any meaning in anything else, in life in general – that’s the one thing it absolutely can never do. We can dismiss that possibility right from the start! It can’t find meaning anywhere. Why this should be is very easy to explain – who we take ourselves to be (the ego-identity) is a construct not a real thing, and since it isn’t a real thing there can be no question of it finding its existence to be actually meaningful. There is not – and of course cannot ever be – any real ‘meaning’ to the existence of an unreal self, an unreal identity! If we want to have the experience of having a meaningful life (and naturally we do want this) then we have to write the narrative ourselves. We have to manufacture it…
This is of course something we very often hear within the context of New Age philosophy; we often hear it said – in portentous terms – that we ‘make our own meaning’ and when we hear this the implication is that this is a very good thing, a truly wonderful kind of a thing. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t make our own meaning, if that’s what we want; there’s no reason at all apart from the fact that it just happens to be an infallible recipe for suffering, that is! It’s an infallible recipe for suffering because meaning that we ourselves have decided upon isn’t meaning, it isn’t meaning at all, but if we dumb ourselves down enough then we won’t notice this – we won’t notice the unpleasant echoey hollowness of the story that we’re telling ourselves. Whatever we tell ourselves as a result of our own biases – which is to say, in order to suit ourselves’ – is the avoidance of meaning, the running away from meaning. what is genuinely meaningful is ‘that which we ourselves haven’t made’. Meaning – like truth – can’t be manufactured to suit our own agenda.
Instead of talking about meaning we can therefore talk about truth, in which case we can say that ‘truth is what doesn’t suit us, that it is what we ourselves haven’t agreed upon (or put in place). If I have said what truth is then the one thing that we know for sure is that it absolutely isn’t what we’ve said; if I find that what is being presented as truth is agreeable to me, convivial to me, that it suits the idea I have about ‘what the truth should be’, then I know that, far from being actually true, it’s a self-serving lie – an act of self-deception, in other words. The truth agrees with no one, and that’s how we know that it’s the truth! To claim that what we are prejudiced to see as being the case actually is the case (surprise, surprise!) isn’t just an act of self-deception, it’s also a completely meaningless thing to say, since agreeing with our own biases is – by definition – a tautology.
When we talk so easily about ‘finding meaning in suffering’ we have to be very careful that we’re not talking about ‘making up stuff to suit ourselves’ therefore, we have to be very careful because ‘making up stuff’ to suit ourselves is what we mostly do! This is in fact what we almost always do – for us not to invent a whole bunch so-called ‘truths’ to suit ourselves is extraordinarily rare – rare to the point of non-existence, we might say. Inasmuch as we experience ourselves as living in a universe that matches our expectations, matches what we already think it is, then we’re living in tautological delusion. Inasmuch as we have a belief (or beliefs) about the world and do not observe our belief system being proven false on a continual basis, being falsified with every moment that passes, then we’re living in the self-serving fantasy – a fantasy that has no point other than to prevent ourselves from ever seeing what is actually true.
We need to be extraordinarily cautious when we talk about ‘finding meaning in our suffering’ (or finding meaning anywhere else, for that matter) since when we say that we’re ‘finding something’ what we generally mean is that we’re ‘manufacturing it ourselves and then pretending that it was there all along’. Standard New Age philosophy asserts that ‘the universe is supporting us’ and this of course sounds great. It’s not possible to get better than that – if the universe itself is supporting us then how can we go wrong? To say that the universe supports us easily lends itself to great misunderstanding however – the universe may be said to support us but that doesn’t mean it that it supports our idea of ourselves, and our ‘idea of ourselves’ is all we really know. Our idea of anything is all we generally know. The universe doesn’t support our false idea of ourselves; we support the false idea of ourselves – that’s just about all we ever do! On the contrary, the universe will = if allowed – painfully expose our false ideas about ourselves (and our ideas about everything else) as being totally false, which is something like having a plaster being painfully ripped off a hirsute area of skin (since there’s no ‘non-painful’ way to rip off a plaster).
This painful process of ‘bias falsification’ is something that we resist to the limit of our ability – naturally enough, since we aren’t particularly fond of pain! Our full-on gung-ho resistance doesn’t make any difference in the long run of course; we will get to where we’re going one way or another (which is to say, the battle against the truth is not a battle we can win) but what it will do is prolong and exacerbate our suffering, since we’re fighting against the very thing that’s helping us. We are fighting against the only thing that can ever help us and we’re doing so with extreme tenacity. It’s been said so often that has become a cliche, but ‘we are our own worst enemy’. No other enemies are needed! The Prophet says, ‘Your greatest enemy is your self that is between your two sides’. We might think we understand this but of course we don’t – this is the hardest thing in the world to understand.
In this connection, Jung talks about the opus contra naturam, ‘the work against nature’ – naturally we favour ourselves, naturally we ‘go along with ourselves’, ‘agree with ourselves’, and struggle to organise everything in accordance with our biases, in accordance with how we think things ought to be, but this mechanical activity it’s not going to do us any good. No mechanical (i.e., thought-based) activity is ever going to do us any good, when it comes to our relationship with the truth. Thinking (or ‘resisting’) always takes us away from the truth; moving towards ‘the real’ is not something we can do under our own steam.
‘Searching for meaning’ sounds inspirational to be sure, but this just isn’t how it works. We can’t cast ourselves in a heroic role like this, as much as we’d like to. The Extrinsic Self is a dodger, not a hero. It’s not a great guy. Once we understand that our situation, as conditioned beings, is such that our secret orientation is always going to be towards protecting the bubble of inverted reality that the Extrinsic Self needs in order to continue existing (no matter what we might believe to the contrary) then we will no longer put our trust in thought to ‘play straight with us’. We will no longer put our trust in thought to tell us what’s really going on, any more than we can put our trust in some corporate news agency to do this. We will realise that we are ‘living a fantasy’ and that the mind-created sense of self was hoodwinking us all along and that establishing its relationship with the truth is the very last thing it wants to do. It would rather do anything than this since the truth that it would be establishing a relationship with has nothing whatsoever to do with it. It would be writing itself out of the picture by cosying up to the truth, and that was never on its agenda…
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