The Bucket List Generation in the Age of Anomie

by Brett & Kate McKay on March 21, 2010 · 123 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

In the Art of Manliness Community, members often pose questions to the forum asking for advice. One question that pops up from time to time runs something like this: “I feel like I’ve lost passion for everything in life. Nothing seems to interest me and life feels empty.” Other members often respond that the person is likely clinically depressed and should go see a doctor.

Such advice is meant to be helpful and for some it probably is. But it also assumes that these kind of feelings always originate from the individual himself. Something is wrong with his mind that needs to be fixed with therapy or medication. But is this always the case? Or could that empty feeling be caused by much bigger cultural currents?

What Is Anomie?

At the turn of the 20th century, French sociologist Emile Durkheim was interested in a similar question. While suicide is often thought of as the result of deeply personal problems, Durkheim wanted to investigate if the act was really influenced by larger cultural factors. He studied countries’ weather and religion and economy, looking for what might negatively or positively effect the suicide rate. What he concluded, in his seminal 1897 work, Suicide, was that the suicide rate was greatly impacted by the presence in society of something he called anomie.

Anomie, which literally means “without law” in German and French, was defined by Durkheim to be a state of “normlessness.” Durkheim posited that in times of social change and upheaval, clear societal standards and expectations for individuals vanish. Without “clear rules, norms, or standards of value” people feel anxious, rootless, confused, and even suicidal. Life in an age of anomie can often feel empty and meaningless.

Towards a Normless Soceity

As we’ve discussed previously, part of the reason we sometimes feel nostalgic for the “good old days” is that it was a time with clear expectations and shared cultural values, rules, and norms.

But people rightly felt chafed by such constraints; too many folks didn’t fit inside the tidy boxes. And so society threw off the old rules in favor of a world where personal freedom ruled supreme, a world where the only real rule was essentially “live and let live.”

The WWII generation found meaning and purpose from the great many social norms that governed their lives. The Boomer Generation found meaning and purpose in rebelling against those norms.

But now we have neither social norms, nor anything left to rebel against.

What we have is an essentially “normless” society. There are still a few expectations that linger but “live and let live” generally reigns. You can get married at 20 or 40 or never, live with someone for decades and never get hitched, have 9 kids or none, or your first at age 60, wear what you want without anyone saying anything, date a woman from a different race, pierce any part of your body, walk down the street holding another man’s hand and not get roughed up, father a child out of wedlock and not be shunned by others, be a corporate warrior or a stay at home down or go back to college at 50. You can pretty much do whatever you want, short of breaking the law, and endure minimal social repercussions.

Certainly this unfettered personal freedom has its very positive aspects, allowing people to be whoever they wish. But in this blessing also lies the curse, when you can do anything and everything you want, how do you ever decide what it is you want to do and feel real satisfaction when you’re doing it?

Adrift in Personal Freedom

Personal freedom without any constraints is a recipe for anxiousness, restlessness, and unhappiness. This isn’t some Puritan maxim-it is argued by sociologists and psychologists alike. Personal freedom without any guideposts, standards, or expectations is like being adrift in deep space. The weightlessness is initially exhilarating, but you lack any frame of reference for where you are-up and down, left and right are meaningless.

When we look back on men in the 1950s we sometimes think, “Those poor saps. Had little choice but to get married right away, have three kids, live in the burbs, and work at some corporate job for 50 years. How suffocating.”

But we have our own problems in our time. The men of the 50s might have been very constrained, but they also had clear indicators of whether they had attained success and happiness. They had a clear sense of where they stacked up in the game of life. Now success and happiness can mean a million things and no one is sure they have it. With so many choices, we are ever restless about which to pursue and if the avenue we’re taking is really the right one.

I have a friend who is endlessly lamenting that he wants his life “to be extraordinary.” But when I ask him what that means, he shakes his head, and says, “I don’t even know-it’s just this feeling that haunts me all the time.”

The Bucket List Generation Looks for the Meaning of Life

We are truly deeply social creatures. For hundreds of thousands of years of human history, people lived in tribes with their lives governed by the rules of the tribe and close social ties. Only very recently in the grand scale of things have we become tribes which consist of lone individuals and nuclear families, each micro-tribe living in its own isolated pod. (As a side note, people often talk about women being stay-at-home moms as the most natural thing, but there can hardly be anything more culturally unnatural than a woman, separated from family and friends, alone with her baby day after day).

As our own micro-tribe, we are charged with the task of creating our own rules, values, and expectations, our own personal meaning for the world. Yet it is often an unsatisfying task; it is like creating a personal language; it is uniquely ours, but we can’t use it to communicate with anyone else. Our personal creeds exist in a vacuum; without standards and social institutions to provide some structure, they have no context and thus no meaning.

Not feeling well a few weeks ago, I caught back to back episodes of a new show on MTV called “The Buried Life.” Now as far as “unscripted television” goes, this show is light years beyond most drivel that appears on the boob tube. Four telegenic 20-something lads decide to “break away from the normal track,” and drive a purple bus around the country, checking off various items on their “bucket list.” For every task they complete, they help a stranger do something they want to do before they die.

The show is warm and fuzzy and inspiring, but I couldn’t help but notice a couple of things. One is that when the guys ask other people what they want to do before they die, and they tend to ask lower-income, minority folks this question, these people come up with meaningful things like “Reunite with my son who I haven’t seen in 20 years” and “Visit my mother’s grave in another state.”

But the things the guys themselves, who are white, middle-class types who likely have lived pretty charmed lives, want to do before they die are a collection of fairly superficial tasks: “Give a toast at a stranger’s wedding.” “Throw a badass party.” “Crash the Playboy mansion.” “Ask Megan Fox on a date.”

Now I don’t have anything against bucket lists. In fact, we’ve encouraged men to come up with one. But seeing one played out on television made me realize how hungry guys in my generation and socio-economic bracket are to find meaning in their lives, and how hard it is to come up with meaningful avenues to do so. In a world without norms, a very comfortable world without the age old challenge of simply meeting one’s basic needs, we have been forced to invent checklists of random items in hopes they can guide us to a fuller life. But the challenges we pick for ourselves will never ultimately satisfy our need for a feeling of purpose or fulfillment. Challenges get their meaning from being tied to something greater than self-to God, home and family, or country. You can give a toast at a stranger’s wedding, feel the initial rush, but the satisfaction will not be lasting because the “accomplishment” doesn’t have any impact beyond the self.

The Task Ahead

I know this post seems rather pessimistic, but it’s not meant to be a doom and gloom hand wringing exercise, and it’s certainly not a nostalgic longing for the past. People can talk about a revival of traditional values til they’re blue in the face, but we’ll never see a return to strict societal norms. The cat is out of the bag, and people will not relinquish the personal freedoms we have gained to put it back in.

It’s simply something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s not a problem where I can generate some bullet points on how to fix it. It’s something complicated we all need to think through. But it’s important to understand what you’re dealing with in life, and that if you sometimes get the sense that life feels awfully empty, that you know you’re not alone and that there’s a reason for it. It doesn’t mean we should give up. While society may never again have shared values, it doesn’t mean we cannot each strive for personal excellence. Or that our lives are destined to be meaningless. Every generation, every age has its own set of challenges. The challenge of ours will be to find true meaning and purpose in the age of anomie. How do you think a man can go about this task?

{ 123 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anon March 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Thanks. I really needed that.

2 Zach March 21, 2010 at 8:56 pm

This may earn me some scorn, but I shall plunge ahead. We have lost our faith, and it has led to license. Since we won’t bind ourselves to any moral code, every moral code is open. That’s not really freedom. I’m not saying at all that anyone should be forced to adopt a religion, because that’s tyranny. I’m saying that by losing our traditional religion, we’ve lost something we may not be able to reclaim.

I think many people react to the hypocrisy in some religions and reject the whole idea. There’s a difference between hypocrisy and not meeting a perfect ideal despite our best efforts. The key is that a modern man often has no ground to defend. A Christian may refer to the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes and say “on these principles will I stand, and though I may falter, I shall return and do my best to live by them”.

Anyway, my purpose isn’t to convert anybody (I spent two years doing that for my church already =) ). I’m simply saying that my faith gives me roots. Roots like these give me freedom to do something larger than simply amuse myself. Roots like these have helped me with my marriage (10 years now) and my children (1 boy, 3 girls). My faith has been a spur driving me to do good for others, too.

It’s hard to talk theology in the comments section of a blog post. I might recommend Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton (a very easy read) as a defense of traditional Christianity.

Might also recommend Matthew 5 (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/matt/5) or if you’re in the mood for something different, Mosiah 2 from the Book of Mormon teaches that when we serve others, we’re serving God (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/mosiah/2).

There are other texts that might be more familiar to those from other faiths than mine as well. I don’t want to preach at all; I just wanted to continue the thinking of the OP with some comments about my own experience.

3 Brett McKay March 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm

@Zach-

I don’t discount that faith can give life roots and purpose, but speaking from personal experience, while it may give you purpose in one area, it doesn’t always prevent life from feeling empty in other areas.

4 Shaun March 21, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Damn, and I was hoping that you would have the answers :) This post pretty much sums up my thoughts for the past few years. I’ve worked through a good chunk of my personal bucket list, and though each time I completed an item I felt good, there was an adverse effect of feeling like there was one less awesome thing for me to strive for. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s like you said, checking off an arbitrary list of things is meaningless unless they are tied to something important. I really look forward to seeing what other comments show up in this thread.
Great post :)

5 bostonhud March 21, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Brett-
Wonderful, insightful post. Your vulnerability allows all of us to tackle these deep issues.

I’m reminded of an article in the Atlantic I read last year that profiles a seventy year long study on what makes men happy. It was conducted by Harvard. It followed men, sent them questioneers (sp?) every once in a while, and charted their happiness as life went on. Heres a link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/7439/
The study has found that above everything, having good friends and a good social life is the most important indicator towards happiness.

I think you touch upon a similar point- when you speak of attaching ourself to something bigger than ourselves. Faith might be important in one area. A business we work for might be another. I once read about the original Apollo mission team, and how their work wasnt just a job, but they felt that they were doing something so important, so groundbreaking- they were sending a person to the moon.

Maybe that could help us- looking at the areas of our life and finding a purpose beyond ourselves for why we’re doing what we do. I think this could be extremely important to our hyper active, always moving, Facebook-ing generation. Let’s find something that exists in this world, that isnt always changing and moving, and hook ourselves up to that.

6 Steve March 21, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Enormously interesting post.

I actually think that faith can make life seem more empty sometimes, not less. Yes, it gives you a meaning and purpose, but if you believe in an eternal hereafter, that this earth life is just a temporary station on the way to a more perfect world, then it makes earth life seem even more superficial and off-kilter-the whole stranger in a strange land feeling.

7 Mike Duminiak March 21, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I’ve faced this and found no real solutions either. It was partially the topic of a Masonic meeting I attended and how it relates to this generation’s lack of real social attachment while simultaneously being the most connected (via technology) generation ever. It isn’t a lack of desire, but a lack of direction that plagues us.

I stop and look at my life and can honestly say it is pretty darn good. I have all I need and plenty of the things I want. Yet, never do I feel that I have accomplished anything. I throw myself into many things, lose interest in lots of them when the newness wears off and begin to tired of the few I retain as even thry cease to present any new challenges. Accomplishment is hollow and only the hunt for it seems to bring happiness.

Trying to reconnect with tradition seems to help, but only so far as those who do the same. Trying to make life meaningful is my biggest challenge and in some ways not succeeding is better as I don’t know what I’d do if I were suddenly content. What would be the point then?

Very good post and an area that truly challenges modern manliness in a way that feminization does not. Feminization can be undone by each man for himself. Putting meaning into life is harder.

8 Colton March 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Thank you for introducing me to the term “anomie.” I have felt the weight of purposelessness and vague notions of wastefulness. I’ve procured Durkheim’s book and hope that it will aid me in diagnosing my own despair.

In future entries, I would like to see someone attempt to answer the final question of this post. While I appreciate the author broaching this subject, the exhortation to hope at the end rang rather hollow. Perhaps there are members of the community that can shed some light on the clinical treatment of the problem?

9 Darius March 21, 2010 at 9:57 pm

You’re totally right, Its easy to feel aimless when there’s so much freedom and options.
Thanks for writing this, I learned something from it.

10 Ryan March 21, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Great post! Like many who visit this site, I’ve thought a lot about this very issue and have struggled with it. I’m still digesting what you’ve written, so I’ll refrain from commenting right now, but I will say _thank you_ for not simply trotting out a “7 Manly Ways to Combat Anomie” blogtacular. Not every problem has a simple solution, and despite the prevailing wisdom of the blogosphere, you can’t just lifehack your way to a higher purpose.

11 Ryan F. March 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Colton, as someone studying psychology, I can tell you that there is no “clinical” treatment for anomie or normlessness. It is after all a product of culture, and doctors cannot change the culture or create cultural norms, they can only help change individual minds. Doctors cannot give people the meaning of life either, or else the one who figured it out would be a very rich man! So it may be hollow but that is the reality, every man is left to the task of finding meaning for himself. I can say that extensive social ties does help one’s happiness, feeling more part of a tribe. And having lower expectations-people’s expectations for their life are quite disproportionate to reality. Most of the time life is ordinary, not extraordinary. Your life is not going to be like Entourage. The more you accept that, the happier you’ll be.

12 RiverC March 21, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I’m going to second Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton – it is not really an argument for Christianity or Catholicism (Gil was a Roman Catholic) but an argument about a sensibility about life which, if one ‘gets’ religion – which some do not (sadly, I believe, but God has his reasons — read Dante) would lead one to traditional religion.

That aside, he argues for a particular sensibility towards life which could be described as the contrast between cynical irony and wondrous irony – a rather open attitude towards things most ‘open minded’ folks tend to be closed off to – miracles, truth in fairy tales, practical romance, etc. The more ‘wise’ of us comfort ourselves that angels are superstition, fairy tales are trite and practical romance is for losers.

By the way, I don’t know if this has been discussed here, but appreciation of poetry is supposed to be a man’s art. If you step beyond the common understanding into rhetorical structures, spiritual meanings, unintended parallels and so forth, for those inclined it is extraordinarily challenging and rewarding – and not at all effete.

An interesting example is as follows:

“[In Perelandra,] C.S. Lewis gives a horribly realistic blow by blow description of this hand to hand fight. And yet as Ransom gains the upper hand and pins down the Un-Man he can’t help reciting a line from “The Battle of Maldon”, a poem about a Viking raid on the Essex shore in the year 991. Looking it up, that line must have been the reply of Byrhtnoth the Alderman to the Viking’s demand for tribute :
“Hearest thou, seafarer, what this folk sayeth?
They will to you a tribute of spears give,
deadly points and time-tested swords,
such war-gear that you in battle will not profit from.” ”

http://cslewis.drzeus.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=2467

Anyway, such things are for the more literary; though I think anyone can enjoy:

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Last_Hero

Overall, anomie means that each man must choose his lawgiver – ‘nomie’ coming from the word for law in greek (probably?) ‘nomos’ – meaning ‘without law’. My suggestion is that Americans in terms of religion have tended toward what we should call ‘clear soups’ for sustenance, and steered away from what you might call ‘thick soups’. The thickest soup is straight up Gaia-worship – which is becoming more popular these days it seems – but what you really need is a soup which is both thick and clear. This is to say, something which is not simply true in the sense of rational propositions, but is also substantive in character. But if you do get a chance to read Orthodoxy, Chesteron understands clearly it seems the idea of a ‘Christian Materialism’ if we can even put those two words together without going blind.

My hope is those who are not religious can still gain something from this as well.

13 David March 21, 2010 at 10:28 pm

“While society may never again have shared values, it doesn’t mean we cannot each strive for personal excellence. Or that our lives are destined to be meaningless. Every generation, every age has its own set of challenges. The challenge of ours will be to find true meaning and purpose in the age of anomie. How do you think a man can go about this task?”

I think the solution lies in the same place as the problem. Rather than seeing society as an amorphous blob of conformity that has to exist across all strata to be meaningful, we as men need to redefine that.

In the same way that the internet allowed us to define ‘community’ in terms of shared interest rather than geological proxity (AoM, anyone?) – so our individuality can let us participate in societies that are meaningful for us. Zach above has a faith community. Others have rejected that. Rather than seeking to reimpose some sort of super-society that is homogeneous and identical, the very freedom that brought about the anomie gives us the freedom to change it.

The problem lies in the ‘supermarket’ mentailty. I don’t know about some of you, but I can get paralyzed picking cereal when there are 100 variety over 5 racks twenty feet long. Young men, especially, will find it hard to make decision about commitment that will impact a lifetime without the benefit of that lifetime to inform the choice.

It’s why it is important for us who are slightly older to get involved in the lives of younger guys – either as fathers (ideally) or mentors and friends. We can forge relationships and share insight into the lives of younger guys to help them build a framework for meaning in their lives. The beauty of personal freedom is that you don’t HAVE to take the role that a faceless society has pre-scripted for you – you’re able to build your own.

The trick will be to build one that has substance, challenge and meaning – and then have the intestinal fortitude to walk it even when it’s balls to the wall hard. But that’s not anomie -that’s character – and probably a different post!

14 Ben March 21, 2010 at 10:39 pm

This is nothing new. Ecclesiaties discusses this very idea. As a man of faith, it does help but normlessness of our time has its effect in this religious world as well since religion, regardless of what is subscribed to, is seen as a peripheral element in life. Sadly, faith traditions must market as well and people buy and sell traditions as much as anything else. Something more akin to any other voluntary organization, an item on life’s buffet table, rather than one’s core belief structure. It too is normless. That is where the malaise lies even when one “has faith” and life continues to float in lifeless state. What should be on our lists of things to do before we die should include such wonders as having a positive affect in the life of another human being to whom we have no familial relationship, contribute to building something or anything that will benefit the world beyond our one own life, and lastly understand as our hardworking ancestors did that seeing another day of life as a profound accomplishment in itself. We have hidden the fragility of life behind such rose colored facades that we miss the preciousness of the perseverance of even a day and the shear joy of spending that day with our fellow men in celebration of what we have been given; our lives, our humanity, and being able to share in creation.

15 Philip March 21, 2010 at 10:48 pm

This post is dead-on correct in terms of the culture we live in–what are we living for? Where is the meaning in life? Experience has proven the futility of Nietzschean-existentialist myth that we can somehow create our own meaning–that somehow existence precedes essence. It isn’t just about creating meaning, it’s about finding the meaning that is already there.

As a Christian, I believe that each of us has a purpose and that norms, far from restricting freedom, enhance it by providing guidance. We do ultimately have to get outside ourselves and our selfish little worlds to see the purpose for which God has made us. If we cannot find a bedrock of meaning for our lives that is unshakeable, then they will be like the house built on a foundation of sand.

16 Mike March 21, 2010 at 11:05 pm

In my experience, most people have a goal to make the world a better place. The biggest hindrance to man in accomplishing this is that man dies. Even if the world is a better place, it eventually falls apart. The repeated rise and fall of human civilizations seems to corroborate this. Also, the person who made the world better, even if their name does go beyond their death, is not there to enjoy it. Man desires to see good established forever over evil, yet time and time again his evil nature seems to triumph, as good men cannot seem to do enough to stop evil.
This is usually where religion steps in to try to correct the problem. The problem here is that religion doesn’t actually change human nature-it attaches moral value to doing things that we know to be right. This encourages man to try in his own strength to overcome his evil nature. Yet time and again we see people murdered and tortured in the name of religion. That doesn’t work either.
If a man does actually want to see good win over evil, his nature would have to change, which he cannot seem to do, no matter how hard he tries. If this is, in fact, true, either: we are all doomed to futility for the entirety of our existence (in which case, suicide isn’t a particularly irrational conclusion once you figure all this stuff out), or, there is a (one) God, who has to first make a way for man to change, and then actually do the changing, give man a purpose, let man fulfill that purpose, then let him live on so that the purpose for which he lived is established and will not be taken away. In order for all of these things to happen, good has to conquer evil forever, and God actually has to do it.

I’m not trying to have a bulletproof argument. It’s just obvious in life that, even when we have it all, we still want more, and the only way we can have all that we want, is if we have it forever. The only thing that keeps us from taking this position is pride-that My Goal, My Life, My Way is worth it, even though if we took a few minutes to really consider it instead of constantly trying to convince ourselves we’re okay, we’d know that it wasn’t true.

*shrug*

17 Brian Driggs March 21, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Inspired (and timely) post, sir. Thank you.

With all our unfettered freedom, it’s possible to feel that, because we *could* do anything, we *should* do everything, and our perceptions shift from the reassurances of our accomplishments to the infinite number of pursuits no man could master in his lifetime. Modern technology allows us to very easily see how much greener the grass is on the other side, and we’re so eager to see that grass that we don’t notice our own well groomed lawns.

I recently read a great book by Dov Seidman called “How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything In Business… and In Life.” This book really changed my perspective and cleared a lot of the fog of anomie from my mind. It’s all about taking pride in doing the right thing; being honorable and fair; achieving significance. You’re only dead when the last person who remembers you dies.

We can pursue near term entertainment and personal gain, but when we seek significance, we find that it’s far more rewarding to treat others as equals, forging partnerships which make it possible to live a life of meaning and substance. We might be the Bucket List Generation. We might have some really big buckets, but I like to think that I’d rather the things on my list have significance because I did not do them alone.

18 Allen March 21, 2010 at 11:25 pm

There is old advise on how to carve a horse: Start with a block of wood and remove everything that doesn’t look like a horse. In the same way, if you want to shape your life, you start with universal possibility and remove everything that doesn’t look like the life you want. The things I’ve done that really improved my life have always been things that severely limited the possibilities — getting married and having kids, picking a major, committing to a career track — all of those things felt like I was cutting off a whole un-lived life. At the same time, many friends who have failed to make clean choices on these points have seemed to end up mired down and drowning in a sea of possibilities — and I have certainly noticed that when I have a life-choice to make, large or small, the cleaner a choice I make, the easier my life gets after.

I’m very religious, but my church doesn’t demand much of me in the way of personal limitation — I’m just asked not to, you know, be actively bad. I’ve often wondered if this is in fact a good thing or a bad thing? I also wonder if anomie is addressable by belonging to a group, religious or otherwise, which re-enforces your limiting choices, without necessarily requiring that the whole of society buy into those values.

19 Carl Muthman March 21, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Brett
Very good explanation. I have always thought some of the personal issues we have are in part related to the fact we “have it to easy” compared to many societies.

20 Carson March 21, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Lost passion for everything in life?

Buy a motorcycle. Problem solved.

21 Luka March 22, 2010 at 12:28 am

Religion, Bah! Yet, please, do not misunderstand me. This is a large question, the meaning of Life and all, and I do not believe a wall of text the size of the Great Wall of China could even begin to adequately discuss this. So let me try to make this brief.
In the Christian tradition, we were put on this earth to steward it and turn it into something beautiful; you can find this in Genesis before the fall in Ch. 3. This work though, this gardening and stewardship and general care for creation is not the end for which we are made. We were made not follow a set of rules (they were supposed to be our nature), but to simply commune with and partake of God. When I say God, I do not mean something like Zeus, a being that is only more powerful than us but just as human. If you will, imagine the essence of Beauty, and Goodness, and Love. Now imagine all of that wrapped into one thing which we will call Perfection.

Now imagine that this Perfection actually talked back.

An intelligent and sentient Perfection that simply wants to share the experience of gazing on something flawless.
This is not a complete defense, I only pray that the Spirit fills in what I left out, but I charge that the emptiness that religion leaves in other areas, or anything for that matter, will be filled once we truly gaze upon the Face of God. For that experience is the only thing big enough to fill the hole we feel within our souls.

My suggested reading is “Concerning the End for which God Created the World” by Jonathan Edwards. This may make more sense than my ramblings.

Blessings,
Luka

22 Anna March 22, 2010 at 12:30 am

It is nice to see that there is a term for this, and it solidifies my personal experience. In my teenage years, I couldn’t comprehend why I was so depressed – I had a good, loving family, talent and opportunity to learn to use it, and a bright future. I later realized, after struggling with antidepressants that only made matters worse, that I lacked drive because I had never had to fight for anything. I’d never had a real challenge and I didn’t know the real value of my life or anything around me.

My parents were appropriately dismayed and confused when I started intentionally making some of “the wrong choices” – not marrying that nice fellow, dropping completely out of the church I had been raised in, to start with. They started to come to terms when they saw me happier than before, though I think they are still a little bewildered now that I am contemplating dropping a career that I attained my master’s degree for. Their concept of success and fulfillment is not my own – if I am that grizzled old maid pouring your coffee at the corner cafe in 20 years, I can assure you, it is because I am happier having made a lot of mistakes that are wholly my own than being cooped up in an office making lots of money and not knowing quite where I went wrong in my life by making all the right choices.

The difficulty is that so many people don’t know that you don’t have to have that fancy car or posh office to be successful. So they go for it, without really thinking about what they want, assuming they want what everyone else wants. I hope that more people start questioning our current outdated ideals for success now that employment is scarce and those ideals become harder to grasp, reaching instead for something that adds meaning to our own lives and revitalizes our culture.

23 Vincent March 22, 2010 at 2:02 am

It really all comes down to the isolation we face today. When I was growing up, we’d have these huge family reunions. A hundred happy, drunk Italians having a good time. Same with Easter and Christmas-big family parties. Nobody’s had a reunion or party in 20 years now. Everybody lives in far flung locations all across the country and no one can get together. My sister’s in Hartford, my brother’s in St. Louis. I see my siblings and nieces and nephews maybe once a year. It’s such an unnatural state of things. I have a great wife and kids but no extended family around. And no really good friends. They say no man is an island, but that’s what we’ve all become. Deserted islands.

24 Michael March 22, 2010 at 2:42 am

Wow. I’ve been wrestling with this myself – not for me, but wondering about how to go about motivating guys who seem to be drifting through life. And like you, I found no easy answer.

I do like the “how to carve a horse” concept, though: determining what you want by first determining what you DON’T want. It’s a start, in any case. The other idea is one by Steve Pavlina: write on a blank piece of paper, “What is my purpose in life?” and write down whatever comes into your head until you’ve written something that makes you cry.

And here’s a third option: travel as much and as far as you’re capable of traveling. Learning seems important to a passionate life, and travel is like a crash course.

25 Dan March 22, 2010 at 2:53 am

Isn’t it interesting that most (not all) of the comments here refer to religion as the foundation of hope and happiness in life. I wonder if this is because of the nature of religion-giving a set of rules to an individual-and so they then have it all figured out. Or is there is something else? I for one agree, my faith and my beliefs have grounded me and given me something higher to work for, a purpose in life: to gain a physical body and then prove that I know how to use it correctly and for the well being of my fellow man. Understand now, this has NOT given me a life without this exact concern, quite the contrary actually, but that whenever I have this weird feeling of wanting to do something great and not being able to get there, I have had somewhere to turn. That place is my faith and time and again has proven to bring me back to feelings of joy and peace.

I know there are other voices out there, other opinions. My question is, are they silent because they have nothing to add? Do they feel at a complete loss on the topic? Maybe they felt like they should leave religion for this exact reason, it wasn’t offering the hope they hoped for. I really do not know and am innocently curious.

Or is it because this blog has become a community of only religionists/conservatives. Is it weird that I want to hear an opinion that my be completely contrary to my own? I have just wondered how people without that foundation cope with this topic.

26 Rahul March 22, 2010 at 3:08 am

Brett/Kate,

With each post, I love this site more and more. A very interesting point you have raised about the lack of shared societal values and the primacy of ‘Live and Let Live’ in today’s world. Talking out of personal experience, too much choice or deciding the code to live by has never been a source of confusion for me since I am very clear about my values and the kind of person I want to be which guides the choices I make. However, I have often felt confused in coming to terms with entirely different sensibilities of living life and entirely different values held by society at large. It can also hurt and have you confused and searching for answers when you come across such different value systems etc. specially in people you are attached to….

Regards,
Rahul

27 Josh March 22, 2010 at 3:58 am

I for one am a non-religious/liberal; so, rest assured Dan that this blog does have some variety in its’ readers.
As for the other side of the conversation, I’m afraid I don’t have much to say here. Happiness is a beast with which I’ve rarely had the displeasure of struggling with. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been content with my life (to be fair, I’m told I was clinically depressed when I was much younger).
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some trials in my life but nothing that left me feeling lost. I cherish every moment adrift at sea. The variety I see is what gives me meaning. When I think of the immensity of the universe and my place in it, (A speck, on a speck, on a speck, on a speck, on a speck, which is possibly one of infinitely varying specks),
the fact that I’ve the cognitive ability to realize that I can not possibly begin to understand our universe baffles me.
Think how odd it is that humans have invented instruments to create a noise we call music which seems to have a visceral effect on us. All this while a big (only big by human standards), burning ball of gas is collapsing in on itself and forming matter so dense it sucks light in.
I suppose, what it really boils down to is that the key to happiness and fulfillment, for me, is mental stimulation. I’m a bit peculiar though so perhaps this doesn’t apply to anyone else.

28 Sean March 22, 2010 at 4:26 am

Great post Brett! Tackles a lot of what I’ve been feeling since I graduated college.

29 Sunil Setlur March 22, 2010 at 4:32 am

Excellent post! Thank you for voicing the grey, ghost of a thought in my head!

30 Autobraz March 22, 2010 at 6:23 am

Fantastic post. It resonated deeply inside me. Thank you.

I wonder if our generation is destined to keep being the Bucket List one and the next generation will be the one to change that, you know, in the eternal cycle of generational changes.

31 Union Jack March 22, 2010 at 6:36 am

I find it incredible reading these posts that people really believe they are free, have freedom of choice, live in a free country, etc. etc. How can that be? We live in a system that runs on money and you are forced to spend your time and energy doing things that the system demands in order to earn these tokens so you can survive in it. The system itself is owned and run by the people who create the tokens. It’s simple, you have owners:

http://www.livevideo.com/video/26BC5F4EB0A9437A9B4E8C0E1EEC3AD1/george-carlin-america-is-run-.aspx?lastvcid=644517

The problem of the meaning of life is one of power. In a technological system (read ‘The Technological Society’ by Jacques Ellul) by necessity, in order to adapt to it, a man has had his personal power stripped from him. Realising this he tries to replace it by engaging in various surrogate activities; meditation, religion, science, sports, modern art, sex, body building, you name it which provide some relief but no lasting meaning or fulfilment because none of these things really touch the root of the problem. Or he tries to use more technology, anti-depressants, the cinema, the internet, adult education, etc to replace or distract from the problems that technology itself has created.
The problem also, is not so much of no shared social values. It’s that a minority of people don’t share those modern ‘values’ (propaganda) that have been put out by the mainstream media, Hollywood, etc. that most people, to me at least, appear fairly ok with. The majority don’t mind having their desires controlled, their tastes manipulated and their values given to them pre formed by the media elite. It absolves them from the responsibility of thinking.
But anyway, it seems to me right now that those worrying about the meaning of life have simply taken their eye off the ball. For those that haven’t noticed, the world is on the brink of financial collapse. War has been declared on the public under the guise of terrorism to bring in a new world social order. Your life is becoming more regulated under the fake guise of global warming. With all the current scares of flu pandemics, more war in the middle east, a corporate takeover of all ‘public’ (your) utilities and the ensuing crisis following the coming economic and social upheaval I would think there’ll be more than enough in the coming years to keep even the most ardent existential navel gazer busy.

32 Brendan Palmer March 22, 2010 at 6:46 am

A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around
Edgar Watson Howe

A small quote from ”The Art of Manliness” book page 107, which struck a chord regarding our new found problems regarding individualism versus the Community.

When we focus on self, we are always going to come up short, It would seem that those who focus on others find more happiness in self.

An excellent short book I recently read, which had some good reminders of the basics is “Man’s Search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

There is a link to details on my Linkedin profile
http://www.linkedin.com/profile?viewProfile=&key=38587096&trk=tab_pro

33 Steve March 22, 2010 at 7:02 am

So many passionate, heartfelt opinions. You can learn a great deal from the readers comments as well as the article. Excellent work Mr Mckay.. Maybe this subject is so close to so many readers that possibly you should devote more articles to it? Not to say that you should turn into “Dr Phil” etc, just if you’ve been thinking about it recently, Your devoted scribes have responded with how often they think about the subject. I believe you have to learn how to reign in the personal freedom to a point where you can define your life on your terms, if that makes sense. So much choice available in every area of our lives, A sense of personal discipline has to come into play somewhere in order for us to be able to clearly establish or reestablish how we choose our future.

34 Patrick March 22, 2010 at 7:08 am

I’ve been thinking about the very same topic yesterday.

I came to pretty much the same conclusions already presented in this blog entry. We have to do something for the benefit of others. Be it your life partner, your friend, family, your local group, or even the society, but whatever we do we should switch our thinking from “how will it benefit me?” to “how will it benefit those around me?”

I don’t know why, but this works. Perhaps we’re programmed in this way, to make the whole species go forward. An individual who doesn’t help the species is pretty much useless for the species when you look at the big picture.

Two examples from my life:

1) A thing that brings me more satisfaction than LOTS of things is when I do the dishes at my girlfriend’s house when I visit her.

2) A couple of weeks ago I helped an old and blind woman go to her apartment. It took some time and I was late at the place where I was initially going.

Important: I very often find such tasks initially unattractive and want to avoid them. (“I don’t want to do the dishes”, or “I will be late, so I can’t help the woman” etc.)

HOWEVER. Once I DO commit to the tasks I’m very satisfied afterwards. And I would much rather have a feeling of satisfaction than a short lasting good feeling of avoiding helping someone ELSE in favour of ME, only to fall back into my depressed mode (which I’ve been experiencing).

It requires some effort, and I would lie if I said I use the opportunity to help people every time I see it, but it really lifts my spirit once I do it.

35 Daniel March 22, 2010 at 7:55 am

Wow, very interesting post and comments. I do, however, find a bone to pick with the idea that happiness comes from acting within constraints. The shift to a normless society just means that the decisions on the paradigm in which one can be happy is now an internalised one, the responsibility for which rests with the individual. We no longer have rigid social constructions about what we must do with ourselves in order to be happy, nor are there many idiotic social punitive measures for straying from these. Instead, it’s up to us to discover what can make us happy, and narrow these down to those that make us most happy. We are now more free to choose anything to be happy with, and more responsible for it. I’d much rather be free to choose from a much wider variety of lifestyles and be responsible for it myself than to have the ignorant masses socially construct some happiness for me. It is far manlier, in my opinion, to be an explorer or adventurer in the game of life, and to be responsible for one’s own happiness, than to merely operate within the confines of what Joe Lunchpail considers should make me happy.

@Zach. I find it absolutely terrible that Christians think religion is the only source of morality. It’s a shame you have to make this about religion, and despite not wanting to “preach” you have done precisely that, by mentioning various pieces from your religious book, and citing a book that defends your religion (how does this even relate to this article?).

I’m a proud, happy, kind, moral, and generally nice atheist. Morality does not originate from your religious books. Morality pre-dates your religion and arises from the human condition. A debate about morals is difficult in this environment, but I strongly recommend you learn about deontology, teleology, and the ethical/moral frameworks that fit into them. Also, realise that there are more approaches to morality than the Christian/Hollywood notion that things are just right or wrong by their nature. Teleology is the idea that an action can be right based on its outcome (the end justifies the means). Deontology is the popular one, which says that it’s the nature of the action, whether it’s just right or wrong. Consider murder. Is murder morally ok? From a deontological viewpoint, it’s wrong. However, what if you could kill Hitler? Saving a million or two million people would justify it, making it teleologically ok. See what I mean? No religion needed. Your religious books prescribe how you should live, and I don’t have a problem with you basing your life on that particular code, but just don’t presume that your religion says what is right and wrong for others.

36 Derek D. March 22, 2010 at 9:38 am

Life is empty and meaningless and it is empty and meaningless that it is empty and meaningless. WE ADD THE MEANING. It is not the other way around. The world does not provide us with meaning for our lives. We make the meaning. The more proactive we are in creating that meaning, the better men (and women) we will be. The lack of norms and variety of personal choices easily buries us with indecision. Frankly, all of that is a distraction. We have abundant examples of what provides real meaning in our lives. Most don’t do choose that direction, because it is risky. It required putting ourselves out there in ways that may be unpopular or actually elicit scorn from our friends and relatives. Most of the time those fears are just in our heads. The easy choice is to sit back and figure out how to make meaning in ways that will please ourselves and others in shallow ways. To pull from the bucket list discussed, asking Megan Fox on a date could give one a sense of vitality and worth, but it won’t last nearly as long as fulfilling the dreams of those around us. As I once heard a very wise woman say, “the less I think about me, the happier I will be.” Amen to that.

37 Dan March 22, 2010 at 9:41 am

Nice to see I could actually get some useful concepts from the other side of the coin. Thank you, Josh and Daniel, although the attacks may not have been warranted against Zach or his religion. Precisely what I suspected happened. Even though religion does have some VERY helpful answers to this dilemma, there are also additional and helpful concepts we can learn and apply to our lives that we may only see through the eyes of someone distanced from religion. I appreciated your comment on appreciating the beauty and variety of this life and this earth and how that strengthens your ability to cope, Josh. And Daniel, I appreciate the reminder that sometimes your happiness can come from just being able to say “I did that” and own it. Maybe that’s a stretch from what you said, but I got it from where you said “It is far manlier, in my opinion, to be an explorer or adventurer in the game of life, and to be responsible for one’s own happiness, than to merely operate within the confines of what Joe Lunchpail considers should make me happy.” Other than that I couldn’t much tell what your groundwork for peace and happiness in your life were, although they clearly were not from religion. Anyway, thanks again for the comments and reminding me again that religion does not have a monopoly on all the happy people in this world.

38 Rick March 22, 2010 at 9:46 am

Join the military and serve with extraordinary people. Become a policeman, fireman, paramedic or EMT, doctor or nurse. Service gives you a purpose and you can look back and say,” Damn, that was an extraordinary life!”

39 Rick March 22, 2010 at 9:50 am

Oh, and buy a motorcycle. HAHA Great point, Carson!

40 Michael R March 22, 2010 at 9:54 am

This makes me think of the scene from Fight Club where they are driving in the rain and Tyler Durdan asks the guys in the back what they wish they would have done before they die, and they in turn answer “Build a House” and “Paint a self-portrait” I always loved that scene and how sure they were of what they wanted to do.

Additionally on this subject anyone looking to deep dive this subject I would suggest Victor E. Frankl’s – Man’s Search for Meaning, a great little book that deals with finding meaning in life, derived from Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp. From his experiences Frankl created his own segment of Psychology counter to that of Freud.

41 Rick Scoutmaster March 22, 2010 at 10:20 am

The above entries are, generally, amazing, and helpful. Thank you all.

As I see it, there are only two choices: 1) we evolved from muck, therefore we must define ourselves, and accept that in death, we were and are meaningless. 2) or, we are created beings, and we take with us into the next life everything that will fit into our hearts. Love matters, and endures. Relationships and acts of mercy are forever. ….I think the evidence favors #2, so I’m going with the Chrisitan’s God (see book “the shack”)

42 Kevin March 22, 2010 at 11:17 am

“I think many people react to the hypocrisy in some religions and reject the whole idea. There’s a difference between hypocrisy and not meeting a perfect ideal despite our best efforts. The key is that a modern man often has no ground to defend. A Christian may refer to the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes and say “on these principles will I stand, and though I may falter, I shall return and do my best to live by them”.”

Thanks, Zach, I needed to hear this! I still get confused between hypocrisy and my human nature.

43 Angelia Sparrow March 22, 2010 at 11:36 am

@Rick How about option 3? We pulled our physical selves from the muck, learned, grew, invented and touched the stars. Our energies are eternal and recycle from generation to generation. All we do, physical and non, good or ill, matters and reverberates down the ages.

@Dan, I’m one of those that Christianity and social norms were killing. I had to decide for myself what I was and how I believed, because the way I had been raised and taught were toxic to me. I’m in the process of seeking and learning and defining now. It’s a long process and a difficult one, but it is worth it.

In the end, we make our own happiness and our own truth.
The TV series Babylon 5 had two older races who asked the newer ones crucial questions:
The Vorlons ask “Who are you?”
The Shadows ask “What do you want?”
Finding the answer to both of these is a vital step to understanding yourself and finding your satisfaction.

44 Mike March 22, 2010 at 11:44 am

I can’t put it into words, but I could type all day about how much I feel you on this post.

45 Brad March 22, 2010 at 12:03 pm

This is a poignant article that sums up thoughts I have had over the past years as well. I agree that it is difficult to find a solution on an aggregate (society) level, but I wholeheartedly agree with Zach in regards to faith being extremely important (although I am broken and I do not always make it so by my behavior, my relationship with Jesus is my highest priority).

We certainly do find ourselves in an interesting time. The point made that we are past the era of social norms and culture so far that we don’t have anything to conform to or rebel against is well made (I hope I summed that up okay). We are a ship without a destination as a culture, save the destination of “personal happiness”. This tends to manifest itself in selfish and narcissistic behaviors, which ultimately harm society and actually create less happiness and fulfillment.

Anyway, thanks for the article. It was very interesting and profound.

46 Paul II March 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Well written! I’ve been thinking about the same things probably for about a year now, about the lack of social standards, etc. Zach really hit home with the faith bit. I’ve even heard Glenn Beck mention it (I’m not getting into a Glenn Beck argument.), and I genuinely think it plays a larger role than we think.

I think that, in fear of being scorned by others that we possibly haven’t even heard of, we as a society have refrained from traveling outside our comfort zone, such as pursuing religion, or countless other things that might cause “controversy.”

47 Eddie M. March 22, 2010 at 1:15 pm

“Union Jack”, It is easy to be pessimistic with all that is happening in the world, our country and in my community as our “inalienable rights” are being diminished, it would seem, daily. I rather remain optimistic as the only “true” freedom I have and no one can take from me is my freedom of choice. I can “choose” to face each day with that optimsm and consider “problems” nothing more than a “challenges”. I can choose to serve rather than be served. I can choose to smile in realization that no matter what, I am doing better than I deserve. With that perspective, in spirit I roam “free”.

Daniel, another civilized discussion for another time, but by definition I would debate the your utilizing the word “moral” and “atheist” together when describing yourself. “Ethically driven” I hope you are. Morals are based upon right vs wrong, good vs. evil. No God = No Good and No Evil! It all becomes relative and I would argue that this relativity leads to the greater subject of this post “why are any of us here?”

48 Zach March 22, 2010 at 1:22 pm

@Daniel – I can appreciate your sentiment. I was only stating my experience, from my perspective as a Christian. I found your perspective as an atheist interesting too, though I do worry many don’t consider even teleological morality. I think the texts I referenced are profound moral messages, worthy of study by people of any faith (or none). Read them or don’t; an invitation is not an attempt to abrogate your free will.

For the record, while I believe that all that is good does flow from a benevolent creator, that does not mean that all that is good is contained within my faith. I find much to admire in Eastern philosophy and in the writings of the Stoics.

I hope you’ll also note that this was my experience, and that I make no attempt to speak for you. I find happiness in the moral code of my faith. Many, many others don’t; in all those two years I spent actively preaching, only four people I spoke with chose to join my church. My point was to find a code of ethics and stick to it. I also noted that in our culture’s rebellion against Christianity, we may have tossed out one of the finest moral codes this world has seen.

Also, I’m not sure how you thought a post about the meaning and purpose of life could possibly exclude religion =). Throughout history people have turned to metaphysics in general and theology specifically to attempt to answer the questions of life’s purpose. Any discussion of how to add meaning to life would be incomplete without mention of faith, at least for most people.

I hope that clarifies somewhat. I don’t mean to offend your position, but I also intend to defend my position.

49 Jack March 22, 2010 at 1:22 pm

I have been both a very religious guy and an atheist, and personally I found more meaning in life when I stopped believing in God. As a Christian, you think that this earth life is just a short moment on the way to eternity, to a much better world. This, consciously or not-truly saps you motivation to live life to the fullest. But when you’re an atheist, and believe that this world is all there is, then you feel highly motivated to get out and do everything you can, to make every single day count, and live life to the fullest. The religious people I know are very nice folks, but they lack a certain vitality. They live by so many rules here, hoping for a reward in the next world.

Religious folks want to believe they have chosen the harder and higher path, but as someone who has lived both ways, it is harder to be an atheist. Christians have the meaning of life handed to them wholesale, they don’t have to seek it out for themselves. Atheists must actively seek to find their own meaning and answer the questions of life.

50 Chad Smith March 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

A real man does not have fear when there are no social norms. He assigns meaning to what he chooses is the best thing to assign meaning to.

A real man doesn’t wait for society’s laws to tell him what success is. He makes the decisions on what his own benchmarks are, because he knows that he is the one that has chosen his own values, it’s no one else’s fault that he lives by any certain rule.

After everything is said, no matter what culture you live in and how much you conform, YOU are the one that decides that your life has meaning, based on what YOU decide has value.

Take personal responsibility for your values, because you always had a choice in what to adopt into your morality and core virtues, and what to leave out. Example: No one forced you to believe in God, you chose to believe in God.

Our brain is set up so that you can take the man out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the man.

51 Johnny March 22, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Personally, I have found meaning by trying to live my life according to the highest good, God. However, I belong to a weird religion that claims that the Logos (the ancient logic and word) has become one of us to show us exactly how one should try to live, and that he went back to heaven as a man and exists there now. I know this is weird, but it’s what I believe. This claim is very unique among world religions. Nowhere else does the absolute otherness of God and the complete familiarity of humanity find co-incidence in the same person (Christ). Like I said, this belief is deeply weird and it is recognized as a mystery within Christianity. Through an understanding of Christ, one can gain insight into how to use the physical world and the human experience in order to achieve happiness (becoming more like and in a closer relationship with God). I’m not being facetious! I truly see my religion (Roman Catholicism) as deeply weird and yet deeply hopeful.
So, to respond: I agree that the rules and norms of Christianity or any other religion can leave one feeling empty. Only when the rules and norms of Christianity are used as a means of proper orientation towards and relationship with the eternal Word (Logos in Greek) as well as a model for how to perfectly live out our physical, material-bound lives here on earth can one find fulfillment in Faith. The good news (literally evangellium, gospel) is that if God became man and we know about the life of that man, we can be certain that we have a model or norm for how a man should try to live in order to unite ourselves with that Word. Sure, it’s nearly impossible to live this example perfectly, but trying isn’t half the battle, it is the battle.
Finally, how do I know this to be true? I was raised in a Roman Catholic family and I was “forced” to live a life oriented towards the conviction that God is real and that we should live according to Christ’s model (Christian Faith). Now that I am older, I have experienced for myself the “realness” of God in my life, and that has changed he game for me. For someone who is skeptical, try the skeptic’s prayer: “I do not know if you exist, but if you do, please show me that you are real”. One of the tenets of our faith is that God never comes to those who don’t seek—God respects our free will too much (after all, we believe, God made us with free will). The only thing at stake here is your pride; if you are wrong, you get to feel a bit foolish. If you are right, the payoff is eternal (Paschal’s wager). Also, be persistent if you truly want to find out the truth. You didn’t give up the first time you tried to read and failed, and nothing worth having isn’t worth hard work, so be persistent!
And that’s my answer to the problem of Anomie. A bit long, but it says what I found to be lacking in all the other posts on religion or faith.

52 Philip March 22, 2010 at 4:29 pm

If there is no objective meaning to be found in the universe, if there is no ultimate purpose, if we are just “lost in the cosmos”, then why do we have this need for meaning? We have other cravings, for food, for sex, for shelter, and all of these are satisfiable. If life had no ultimate purpose, then we would see no need for one, for there would be no hole. We can only say that a puzzle is missing a piece if there is (or was at some point) a single piece that fits. To speak of giving meaning to your own life is like speaking of giving a shape to an object–the object has the shape it has, regardless of whatever you want to give it. All that we mean by “shapelessness” is that we don’t know what to call that particular shape, just as to talk of meaninglessness means that we don’t know what that meaning is.

53 Joseph Sanderson March 22, 2010 at 6:11 pm

“Anomie” comes the Greek anomos (transliterated), of which the “a” means “no”. “Nomos” can be translated as either law or custom – the Greeks saw law as identical to customary norms. Thus lawlessness and normlessness would be equally valid translations.

What is my point here? Moral norms, derived from some kind of philosophical basis (whether religious or not), should be regarded as just as necessary as laws to prevent the breakdown of a society. Laws (especially punitive criminal laws) must reflect the shared moral standards of a community – otherwise why should people be condemned for breaking them?

Too often now, however, people have been led astray by a misunderstanding of tolerance. Tolerance should mean live-and-let-live – if you are doing no harm, it’s your own business. But many people take that the wrong way – they believe that a person doing what he believes to be right cannot be faulted morally. I would suggest that this kind of moral relativism is a mere fig-leaf for amorality.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m a libertarian (in the philosophical rather than Ron Paul sense). I believe that you’re entitled to hold your wrong views and do wrong things unless others are harmed. But that doesn’t change the fact that what you’re doing is wrong. Most people who read this blog would probably view “metrosexuals” and effeminate men with some disdain; whilst they are entitled to their way of life, that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize it or them for ascribing to it.

Why is this relevant? Our parents’ generation was too dominated by relativism, and they therefore taught us a rather amoral viewpoint. Our mission is to throw that off, and have the courage of our convictions. Until people do, we are doomed to anomie – a nihilistic life without purpose.

54 bostonhud March 22, 2010 at 6:22 pm

I commented once, and have some additional thoughts.
Brett, you bring up the cast of the “Buried Life”, and how their goals seem to be a bit more shallow than the goals of the people they help. You also bring up that the cast was most likely raised in a relatively safe, middle class lifestyle.
Lets look at Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. If one’s need for love, esteem, shelter, etc…are fulfilled, they move “up” the pyramid to needs of self- actualization- things like creativity, problem solving, etc…
Of course the way the boys on the show, or whoever it is at this stage, fill these needs can be varied. One might creativly find a way to crash the Playboy Mansion, one might also creativly find a way to cure cancer.
One requires much less work than the other- and I think this is a reflection of our society as well. 5 year plans are pretty popular, but if you read books like The 4 Hour Work Week, the author suggests nothing more than one year plans.
We’ve lost sight of the need for commitment- to our values, to ourselves. We can fill ourselves up with trips and goals and activities that require no more than a year or two of commitment, and cost significantly less time and effort than a ten year commitment.

55 Guy March 22, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Reading your essay brought to mind this weekly men’s group I used to be a part of. It seems in retrospect as if that group met some of the needs you are talking about: giving meaning to a man’s life, helping realize a moral compass, etc. Thanks for the great article!

56 RiverC March 22, 2010 at 7:33 pm

@Derek D – just because the human is the key to meaning in the universe does not mean the universe is meaningless anymore than the ignition key being the key to the engine mean that the car is engineless. In Genesis you learn that man’s role is prophetic; the world awaits, pregnant with meaning, but with no words to express or elucidate the meaning. Rhetoric primarily is three things: 1. discovery or invention (man sees the world) 2. arrangement (man sees the interaction of things in the world and what they do to him and to each other) 3. elocution (man expresses the meaning of what he has observed or experienced.)

Man is not strictly an alien to the world, as though it would be worth anything without him. He is the key to it being meaningful, and like the car, the engine sits inert, cold and stuck until someone puts in the key and gives it a good turn.

57 Alex March 22, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Fantastic post. And great responses as well. I’ve been off reading about Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search For Meaning, so thanks to whoever posted that tidbit of info earlier.

And I might buy a motorcycle. :) Actually I will probably dust off my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

58 Daniel March 22, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Such an excellent discussion. @Zach, my response may have been interpreted as being a bit harsher than I intended, but that’s one of the pitfalls of trying to discuss matters just using text, which cannot convey body language, tone, and other non-verbal indicators of meaning with the text. I certainly didn’t mean to make it sound like an attack as someone mentioned, although I did intend for it to be a (constructive) criticism of your post.

I’m glad you see the lack of focus on teleology as well. It’s very disturbing that the Hollywood-preferred sense of morality focuses on deontology, and people, by default, think this is the only thing available to them, and even that “bad” actions that lead to good results are still “bad”.

@Jack – excellent perspective from both sides of the debate. I agree 100% – atheists must really strive to find things that religions prescribe for believers.

@Eddie M. – I disagree wholeheartedly with your idea that without a god, there is no good or evil. I find and appreciate profound good in my life, and I try to act against evil (well, perhaps malevolence) whenever I see it and find corrective action to be warranted. I don’t require a deity as a reference point for what’s good/right or evil/wrong. My reference points are deontology and teleology – what’s right or wrong by its nature (based on human condition, evolutionary-based constructions of right/wrong), and what’s right or wrong based on the outcome of the action. The key problem here is deciding which to use – deontology or teleology. Your reference point is the prescribed, constructed code of your religion. I’m not saying whether your code is good or bad, I’m just saying that our reference points are different, and that the lack of a deity doesn’t mean there’s no good or evil in an atheist’s life. In fact, I would argue that, in accordance with Jack’s idea that atheist must actively define their own world view rather than having one given to them, most atheists are probably quite aware of good and evil on their own terms.

59 Chance March 22, 2010 at 11:02 pm

There is no final accomplishment which grants happiness. Happiness on Earth is a never-ending journey. To achieve that happiness, we try to please God, knowing we’ll never achieve perfection. But He will notice when we earnestly seek to journey towards him, and He’ll understand and say “well done” — that is enough to grant us happiness.

60 rich March 23, 2010 at 12:28 am

I though I posted this a few hours ago, but I guess it didn’t post. As a sociology student that has studied Durkheim’s “Suicide,” I think it’s important to mention that anomie in Durkheim’s view is more a mismatch of personal morals and norms with those of the larger society. It is not a simple lack of morals/norms. Also, Durkheim believed that a major factor in suicide rates is the lack of interconnectedness between people, a feeling of alienation. That plays a very large role in Durkheim’s theories on suicide. This might seem like a small complaint, but I do think it is a very important distinction from how anomie has been described here. Also, I wanted to make sure people understand that anomie is a small part of Durkheim’s discussion on suicide. And as a side note-the professor I studied “Suicide” under told us that later studies on suicide have proved a lot of Durkheim’s ideas to be fairly inaccurate, so keep that in mind if you decide to read the book.

61 saeed March 23, 2010 at 12:45 am

Thanks brett and kate,
the first paragraph caught my attention. i’ve jsut felt so bored and frustrated the last few weeks. and its a really bad place to be in bc im graduating in a few weeks.
reminds me to do the 30 days to a better man project. i was going to do it 2 months ago but i got caught up in things. i really think it’ll push me forward

saeed

62 Bernie March 23, 2010 at 2:37 am

Just a minor tidbit: I’m pretty sure the word “anomie” has nothing to do with German or French. I know that in German, “without law” = “ohne Gesetz.”

Ha! And I don’t know French, so I tried an online translator for that and it said that “anomie” in French means “saddle-oyster.”

So it looks like I’ve got a new word for this feeling. The Generation of the Saddle Oyster.

63 Bernie March 23, 2010 at 2:40 am

And yes, before anyone points this out, I know that “anomie” doesn’t mean “saddle oyster” in French. I just thought it was a hilariously absurd translation.

64 Brett McKay March 23, 2010 at 2:53 am

@Rich-

Your clarifications are mostly right on. Durkheim did largely focus on the fact that anomie occurs because people fail to internalize society’s norms-the mismatch you reference-but it also occurred when people couldn’t adjust to changing norms or the norms conflicted with each other. And I think those latter two factors speak to what I was riffing on here. Also, in my reading there have certainly been critiques of Durkheim’s conclusions, but I didn’t come across anything that said his work was inaccurate. Although it’s certainly possible and I just didn’t come across it.

@Bostonhud-

You know, the whole time I was writing this I was thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how we’ve taken care of our basic needs and are now focused on the much more nebulous task of “self-actualization.” I agree with your assessment of our need for commitment. I’m not a fan of “The Four Hour Work Week” myself.

@Bernie-
The German and French reference came from here:
http://books.google.com/books?id=1_lSEh6AAfYC&pg=PA142&dq=anomie+durkheim&lr=&ei=QmSoS5-GE6aWlASNnr36Bw&cd=3#v=onepage&q=anomie%20durkheim&f=false
Although the word is originally Greek. And meant saddle oyster, of course.

65 rich March 23, 2010 at 4:11 am

I can’t say definitively whether he was wrong or not too, I was just mentioning what my teacher said. And “Suicide” ‘s use of anomie is odd, especially when he allows it to play into the other categories of suicide he mentions. But ultimately your post went deeper than merely the meaning of anomie and that was the importnat part you were illustrating. I was just bored and figured I’d give a little background.

66 Morten March 23, 2010 at 5:33 am

The problem with the religious solution is that when you are an atheist and have arrived at the conclusion that there is no god, no afterlife and whatsoever, you can’t just go back.
You can’t suddenly find meaning in gods word out of a religious book, because you know it isn’t so. The alpha and omega doesn’t exist anymore and all you have left is a philosophy which said books are based on.
You can follow a philosophy, but i’m sure it’s nowhere near as satisfying as following the word of god.

67 Erik March 23, 2010 at 8:37 am

Maybe one thing to remember is how, objectively, modern men are fxcked over economically. In the fifties, yeah you had to wear a tie or whatever, but you earnt enough to keep a whole family at a reasonable standard of living. And that was true even if you were doing a blue-collar job. I once saw some old leftist snarl that while he ‘had to wear a tie in the fifties’ he never once in his life ‘worked a whole weekend for nothing just because the boss called it “project work”‘. The idea was that our hipsters nowadays think we are so much better than those old fools who dressed so conservatively … but, again, like the man said, he never worked a weekend for nothing whatsoever. And to sum up (as he put it): ‘I swear the current generation is the most deluded on earth.’
I think a lot of our feelings of dread and loathing and hate come simply from having so little control of our working lives, and getting paid nowhere near enough in real terms, and being laden down with so much debt that we can never see an end to it.
I don’t care if my life if basically meaningless, as long as I can look after my wife and child comfortably and I don’t have to work every single hour God sends just to (almost, but never quite) make ends meet.
That would be enough. And, sadly, nowadays pretty much every man can forget it.

68 Greg March 23, 2010 at 9:45 am

Something I may have missed in scanning the earlier comments, but the sense of psychological paralysis that seems to come from Anomie is a cascading, geometrically increasing phenomenon. If you let a little item or two slip in your daily routine, other items, dependant upon that “slipped” or “missed ” item, will remain undone. The next thing you know, you’re looking at housekeeping that will take a week (and a dumpster) to accomplish, or your entire weekend will be given over to laundry, or the yard (again, the dumpster). Add to that the hugely magnificent range of choices available for one to accomplish daily living, and the mind simply can’t handle it. For example, the basic lunch menu in the deli [at my worksite] includes 8 salads, 2-3 hot entrees, some two dozen sandwich meat options, with 8 breads, four cheeses, and at least a dozen topppings and condiments, and do you want the bread toasted? I’m not going to even attempt the math, or add in the possible chips, drinks, desserts…and that’s just for one lunch at one very small deli. There are several dozen restaurants near my workplace, featuring everything from Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Fried Chicken, Sushi, Sandwiches, etc, etc, etc. within six blocks of my building.
I mean, lunch can literally be a mind paralyzing series of choices to make.
And don’t even let the IT guys at work (the true geeks) get going on what operating system, variants thereof, and programs work the “best”.
In my experience, humans (or at least this human), don’t do too well when presented with an effectvely unlimited range of choices.

Perhaps it is time to read and re-read “Walden”, and profit by Thoreaus’ examples in “Economy.”
“Simplify, Simplify.”

69 Daniel March 23, 2010 at 10:09 am

Great post!
The strange thing is, that I wrote a law exam last week were some important questions were about Emile Durkheim and Anomie. Strange isn’t it?

Greetings from Germany

70 Eddie M. March 23, 2010 at 10:13 am

Daniel,

I appreciate the civility as there is no attempt on my part to ascribe who is right or wrong. My perspective from that of a Law Enforcement Officer is that my efforts are in vain if there is no “good vs evil”. If there is no God then good and evil is defined by individuals and becomes relative to their needs and desires. Now anarchy rules and the strong predate the weak. If this life is all that I possess then I am a fool in my faith (not religion) as my desires are not satisfied. Why be an agent for “good” at that point? If I can define my own morals and subject myself only to my “will”, then my community, family, etc will be harmed. This is the very frightening world of Nietsche where the “superman” simply wills his way and be damned the weak whose will could not stop me.

None-the-less, based upon your thoughtfulness and presentation, I am assured that you and I would be able to work toward the common good of our community and derive satisfactory meaning from it…if only we could agree upon what is good and evil. Thus my point.

71 Tracy March 23, 2010 at 10:54 am

Thanks for the really interesting post.

I can’t help but ask where faith is in this question. If you accept and hold yourself accountable to God’s rules you have expectations to live up to, goals and a definition of success regardless your socio-economic status or the environment you’re living in. It also usually means you’re in a community or group of believers, people keeping you accountable and supporting you.

I know some people don’t believe in God, or have been really burned by “Christians”… but I know what Faith has done for my life.

72 Finnian March 23, 2010 at 11:39 am

Best damn post I’ve read in a while. It spoke directly to the feeling of disorientation and (dare I say) hopelessness that pervades my life, a life that is actually quite successful: a fourteen year marriage, two sons of whom I am immensely proud, a solid career as a teacher. Yet for all that, I feel somewhat adrift. Why?

Thanks, Brett, for acknowledging the complexity of the issue, rather than giving us a simplistic list of quick fixes. Maybe there is some hope in the fact that other men feel the same. At least I know I am not alone.

73 Lawyering Mike March 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm

“The challenge of ours will be to find true meaning and purpose in the age of anomie. How do you think a man can go about this task?”

I think we do it the same way we always have: not by navel gazing, but by finding relationships, hobbies, careers, and civic organizations to invest ourselves in. The beauty is that now, unlike in the 1950s, we can pick and choose which endeavors to give our time to instead of having our options dictated to us.

74 Horatius March 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Very interesting article. On the issue of faith, i just had a discussion about this during my circuits class. I am part of the generation of facebookers, and are most of my classmates. We were discussing the purpose of religion in society. Being a well read individual, and an avid proponent of science, I have difficulty with religion. I was raised in a highly religious household, but to me religion has always been more of a crutch than a gift. One large problem that i have noticed with religion when compared to science, is that religion has become static, while science has continued to progress. The other problem that i have noticed with religion is that while science has build in error checking methods, religion does not.
I am not trying to attack organized religion by any means, rather i just wanted to point out some flaws that i see.
Now to tie this to the article, religion has usually been a support for people. When people didn’t know what to do, or were unsure of the future, they prayed, or went to seek advice from religion. If that support is removed, then there tends to be something missing from peoples’ lives. But the problem is that religion does not related to what we experience today. We understand the human body and the world around us more and more, and many of the questions that drove people to religion can be answered better by science. Yes we still have questions like who am i, where am i going, and where am i headed, but these are questions that even religion cannot answer, because they don’t know for sure. I doubt anyone will read this, but that is my two cents.

75 Michael Michalowski March 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm

You really got the point here. Hell I don’t know how to solve that task, but one way could be to turn your attention back to what makes you happy while doing it. Then do it as often as you can. At least you’ll have lived a happy life.

76 kestrel March 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I have to agree with Rick and Dan, in previous posts. I see the aimlessness in so many young men, these days. For me, one thing that gives me great satisfaction, purpose and -drive- is military service. I think of it as something larger than “just my self.” Being devoted to that type of service can be blissful. Frustrations? Sure: plenty of ‘em in the military, but I do not see so many young men giving even a small part of their lives to service…heck, even volunteering! Giving part of my life to help others (while being bound by some fairly tough constraints) is uplifting and makes me think less of my own sorry problems.

That, and realizing that for every day I get up on -this- side of the ground, it is good day!

Like I said: that is just for me. Mileage may vary. Excellent posts, all around.

77 Dan March 23, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Horatius,
So, I also was raised in a very religious family, but also a very scientific one. My father taught physics at the university level and has spent his life in research. I see your point about science progressing and religion as stagnant, but my view is that science is just trying to catch up. I think of it this way. If God really has all knowledge, then he knows the things we are trying to figure out with science…and he can tell us. I believe he does tell us, and this is why science is progressing. So to me its like there is a limit of knowledge that we are getting closer and closer to through science, but since we only know what we know, and not where we are wrong we still need a solid foundation to lean on, which is where religion comes in. Science and religion are not polar opposites, but are both quests for an eternal truth. They don’t have to be enemies.

78 Tyler Logan March 24, 2010 at 4:49 am

Very interesting. I’ll have to research that further. Personally, it goes against some of my beliefs to believe normless increases suicide rates. Nice post though, got me thinking.

79 Jeff Dobbs March 24, 2010 at 7:07 am

To echo those comments already made – great post!

The answer, at least for me, to your insightful comments is at once simple and yet maddening – the answer lies within. More specifically, I believe the answer for each of us lies within us and should reflect the authenticity which comes from knowing our core values and acting in concert with those in our lives.

For some it may be faith, for others life long learning, career dedication, etc. The point being that in a society which increasingly celebrates the superficial at the expense of the meaningful (there are a million examples of this in the mainstream media), we are left to define this for ourselves. If you wait for an external impetus or answer, you will most likely exist in anomie (great word by the way). Unlike previous generations, we are truly travelling through life in kayaks instead of on the oceanliners of strong societal norms of the past.

The journey within is an imperative for men, and most likely people, to find meaning and connectivity. A future article on the journey within would be interesting.

Mine? In going through a small version of a mid-life crisis, I came up with a small thought to keep me focused on what I believe is truly most important….’Growing up to become the husband and father my wife and daughters have convinced me I can become’.

In my own kayak, its a manvotional.

80 Sir Lancelot March 24, 2010 at 7:15 am

As a Catholic and a student of the history of the Church I have to say (Catholic) religion is never static but it’s in constant dialogue with the world and, more specifically, with science. Actually many of the men at the forefront of science have been clergymen.

I’ve always thought Catholicism = Christianism + philosophy

81 Cambias March 24, 2010 at 10:47 am

I’m a freelance writer, and the most paralyzing thing in the world is to have the freedom to write about anything. Give me a theme anthology soliciting stories on a particular topic, and I can feel the turbines in my head starting to hum. Constraints generate creativity.

This is not a new phenomenon: consider the great masters of music. Most of them worked within fairly rigidly-defined forms. A fugue follows a particular pattern, a symphony must have certain parts. And Bach and Beethoven mastered those forms and created wonders which have endured for centuries. Now? Can anyone even name a living composer of “serious” music, let alone stand to listen to what they produce?

82 Michael March 24, 2010 at 2:57 pm

This article knocked me down. i look forward to re-reading it and all the comments.
Thank you.

83 Joe March 24, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Dear Brett and/or Kate,

Do you have a problem with a man dating “a woman from a different race”? My wife is of a different race than my own, but we consider ourselves conservative, and very much against this current age of anomie.

I usually agree with your articles, but I found this one particularly offensive. I assumed the art of manliness was open to all men regardless of their skin color and ethnicity, but your article made it seem that this is for WASPs only.

I am severly dissapointed in the content of the article. I hope I misunderstood your intention, but it seems you implied dating a woman outside your race is wrong. Let me know if the Art of Manliness is for every American male, or is it for a select group of insecure white men who cannot let go of a Norman Rockwell America, which they never experienced because it never existed.

84 Brett McKay March 24, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I was no way implying that dating a woman of another race is wrong. To make that assumption you would also be saying that I think being a stay-at-home dad is wrong too, no? (I don’t). You seemed to have selectively concentrated on one thing in the list. Dating a woman of another race was simply part of a list of norms that used to be strict rules in society but have now disappeared. The disappearance of some norms is a unmitigated good, like being able to date someone from a different race. Some are not so good, like dads fathering kids out of wedlock. But there was no value judgments in that sentence, it’s simply a statement of fact describing what has changed about society. As I go on to say in the very next sentence, the disappearance of norms is very positive in some ways. The challenge now is simply to find personal meaning in life instead of having society tell you how to find that meaning.

So in short, you have misunderstood the post and yes the Art of Manliness is for all men of any color or background.

85 Alan March 24, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Brett/Kate,

First, congratulations on starting such a profound discussion. Same goes to all the commenters who have managed to keep the discussion civil and productive.

My opinion on the matter has mostly been covered by people such as Daniel (#35) and Jack (#49). The idea that we have been created with a purpose by an all-knowing Creator, and that the road to happiness lies exclusively in discovering and following that purpose, clashes mightily with the idea that we are independent and personally responsible for our actions and their consequences- for our destiny.
Carl Sagan’s comments on the Pale Blue Dot (look it up if you haven’t) resound very deeply with me. The idea that I am an insignificant particle that exists for merely a fraction of time actually does NOT depress me, or leave me feeling purposeless. Quite the opposite.
The probability of me being born, of living, of having this planet to live on, is so microscopic that the fact that I even exist could be considered a miracle. Even moment of my life is a miracle, and as such, I cherish it, and I find purpose in experiencing the many beautiful things that exist in this universe- food, art of all kinds, love, sex, the animal kingdom, the cosmos, individual people, societies, history… I enjoy and find satisfaction in studying or experiencing these and more. And I seek to be kind, to do good, to be helpful to others, because I recognize that their lives are as rare and valuable as mine, no matter our differences.
But most of all, I find that my purpose in life is defined by a desire to be with my fiance, to share my love, my life, my experiences with her. Nothing is quite so satisfying as that.

86 Sir Lancelot March 25, 2010 at 3:15 am

Joe, I think you’re overreacting a bit. I’m not even American and I’ve never felt out of place on this site.

87 Antony March 25, 2010 at 8:30 am

Hi Brett
probably some other nerd before me pointed this out, but “anomie” is used in French and German because it is a Greek word (a-without, nomie-laws).
Thanks for the article

88 wb March 25, 2010 at 10:23 am

First off, thanks Jack #49 for your comments – they are right on. I too am an atheist and I can tell you that you do not need blind faith to have norms, mores, or a sense of right and wrong. You do not need a lording man in the sky who may or may not punish you eternally to create a mission for your life, or to treat others with respect, to improve your world, or even to recycle. As for Zach, who says he doesn’t want to preach but then does just that, I have a wonderful quote for you regarding Christianity which I cherish. Enjoy! “Christianity… the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Yeah, that makes sense.”

89 Matthew R Jones March 25, 2010 at 11:30 am

I’ve been having similar thoughts about the issues on a lack of values, and have never posted anything before, but feel i need to put my thoughts down on paper (so to speak). This article gave my thoughts more focus, it gave me definition for what i was thinking and feeling; anomie. It is true in this country there is a level of social lawlessness, people do what they want, when they want, and i’m just as guilty of being my own tribe as anyone.

I think if everyone tried to put a little more quality into their daily lives everyone would benefit; quality in all forms and at all levels. Even something as small as choosing to buy a better made product, or something bigger like not choosing to cut corners when building a house. Quality in our interactions with each other has the potential to spread to others. Think about all the times you had to talk to unpleasant customer service reps. Now think about the one time you got a person on the phone that actually helped you, you knew the person took pride in their job, and genuinely wanted to help you. It made you feel good, and all that day you passed that feeling along.

I don’t think an increase in quality alone will solve the world’s problems overnight, but it can lead to an improvement over time. I feel quality is a core value that umbrellas every aspect of our lives. It’s one of those things you can spot in an instant. It’s why you fixing up that old lawn mower, or why you can’t bring yourself to throw out that tattered shirt you love so much – no matter how much the misses nags you. Quality is like physics, it’s everywhere, It doesn’t matter what you do, who you are, or what you believe. You can always be better today than you were yesterday. And it can give anyone a reference point from which to judge one’s progress. It is larger than ourselves, but is not tied to any ideology, and can give you direction without being tied to any societal norms.

90 JC March 25, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I realise that not many people will read this, but I’ll put it up anyway.

There’s a great book which deals with these issues (giving life meaning), among other things. It’s called: “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

This book opened my mind, and offered a refreshing way to look at life and experience.
I recommend checking it out.

91 Rob Glenn March 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm

I am so glad this topic was brought up. The point I think is clear. Your right in saying checking off an arbitrary list of “neat things to do before I die” is meaningless. It is a fact that as a society most of us have the means to make a great many things happen. We can care for ourselves in ways that no other generation could, and yet we are less happy, work harder and reap less benifit from our labors than any other generation. The problem with freedom to choose is little is discussed about the responsibility of choise. In this day and age we can choose to squander our existance. This is perferred by society, because it makes one an easy target. For example: If you don’t know what to do with your money, I will be more than happy to take care of it for you. The other slight of this new found freedom is that after establishing freedom, society has done a 180 and picked away at that so as to make everything “safe” for everyone. This eliminates the consaquence of making poor decisions. The true freedom comes in sucess and failure. If you wish to be happy, take up a goal that you may fail at. Put something at stake. that will be a mark of sucess and not just something “cool” to do before you die. A much greater man is one whom can hold his head up high and honestly proclaim; “I tried my best and failed” Than the man who takes on petty endevors and relishes in his sucess. trinkets wear, medals tarnish, but true glory is marked by the history of people. The man that is truly sucessful is the one that at the end of the day can look himself in the mirror and say “I did something today”!

92 Gerard March 26, 2010 at 12:08 am

This post. Is fantastic. And I’m glad you don’t have an answer and that you’re leaving us to ponder the question. I think it is our responsibility to find our niche in society, but it’s impossible to do so without help from others in some way shape or form. It is without a doubt a matter of critical thought that I definitely believe needs to be considered by each and every man. I thought about the idea of norms and how they served as restrictions to those in past generations and how ironic it is that now that we have freedom, at least in the majority of the United States, we are confounded by the vast number of options that surrounds us. Yet the man must choose. Else he be an unproductive member of society. And in response to your question on how a man should go about his business finding his purpose, I think the answers lie in the individual. To me, one of, if not the most important trait a man should have is the ability to be a good judge based on what is best not only for him, but those around him. But in the search of purpose itself, I can think of no better way to cope than Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of “The Strenuous Life”.

93 Sir Lancelot March 26, 2010 at 4:26 am

“As for Zach, who says he doesn’t want to preach but then does just that, I have a wonderful quote for you regarding Christianity which I cherish. Enjoy! “Christianity… the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Yeah, that makes sense.”

wb, I don’t wish to drag down this interesting debate any further, but I’d like to ask you a couple of questions:

1) Are you 16?
2) Did you by chance take that quote from one of the modern-day philosophers favored by man-children too busy playing video games to do some serious reading, such as Bill Hicks and Bill Maher (what’s in a name)?

94 Mike March 26, 2010 at 9:06 am

I’ve read the article but not the posts yet, and all I can say is – wow. I’m nearly 42, came of age in the late 80′s, early 90′s, and I’ve been struggling with these emotions for the last two years since approaching 40. I thought it was just me!

95 Micah March 26, 2010 at 10:28 am

I think that ultimately, regardless of the rights or wrongs about how we have gotten to this place, the only solution is to find a source other than society at large from which to create standards. This means finding and defining personal standards in every realm, and even encorporating ourselves into tribe-like living situations. My wife and I live in very tight community with a large group of friends who have the same thoughts, and we strive to have all things in common, to be real and honest with ourselves and one another in attempt to live to the potential we know exists.

96 Mike March 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

I feel the problem with our society is that it is always about “Me, Me, Me.” This is a large problem. Like you said Brett, we are social creatures who are meant to interact. I feel technology has made us socially retarded. People do not know how to interact with one another unless it’s through technology. I’ve heard of families who sit in the same room together on their laptops, and instant message each other rather than talk. To me that is pure insanity.
What I feel all men should do to find meaning in our lives is to instead of trying to fulfill our personal desires, why not try to fulfill another person’s. I feel people would gain greater fulfillment and purpose from helping out our fellow man rather than marking off an arbitrary task on a bucket list.
I am 21 years old. I am almost done with college and I feel I havn’t done much in my life. I am hoping to be accepted into the Americorps program this coming February where I can live up to what I am saying.

“Happiness is only real when shared” – Christopher Mccandless

97 Sir Lancelot March 28, 2010 at 7:35 am

Good points, Mike. Even something as basic as manners, the lubricant that makes possible for individuals to go about their daily business without clashing, is totally neglected. We’re becoming a species of autists.

As for your second paragraph, it reminds me of a quote from today’s sermon by the Pope: “In order to find ourselves, we need to let go of ourselves first.”.

98 JW March 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm

“We were there to fight, to do PT(Physical Training), to eat, to sleep, then to fight again. There was no big-screen TV or other diversion in the barracks. It was a world of concrete, plywood, and gun oil, and it was absolutely intoxicating in its intensity.” LTC Richard Williams, SAS. That is how a British officer described the environment of being on a special operations task force in Iraq. It’s not for everyone, but joining the military as an infantryman can help define things. When one really considers the nature of ground combat, a lot of things become clear. The man to your right who is fat is now a liability because of his weight. The man to your left is a liability because he is sleepy from staying up too late wataching tv. Priorities are elucidated and faults are exposed.

99 Core March 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm

@Zach
You just gave me an idea….about writing my own moral code and sticking too it.

I agree with you to some degree… I think people have lost there way without someone to lead them around by the nose. Which is sad… in its own right.

100 Core March 28, 2010 at 7:16 pm

@ Post 69

You have a point about the debt…. its like running harder to stay in the same place.

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