At Aeon, where all the cool kids hang out these days, the redoubtable Roy Baumeister suggests that the pursuit of happiness is less important than the pursuit of meaning:
Parents often say: ‘I just want my children to be happy.’ It is unusual to hear: ‘I just want my children’s lives to be meaningful,’ yet that’s what most of us seem to want for ourselves. We fear meaninglessness. We fret about the ‘nihilism’ of this or that aspect of our culture. When we lose a sense of meaning, we get depressed. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?
Being a Professor of Psychology, Baumeister has of course conducted experiments (which he details in his article) prior to arriving at any conclusions on the subject, but arrive he does, eventually:
The meaningful life, then, has four properties. It has purposes that guide actions from present and past into the future, lending it direction. It has values that enable us to judge what is good and bad; and, in particular, that allow us to justify our actions and strivings as good. It is marked by efficacy, in which our actions make a positive contribution towards realising our goals and values. And it provides a basis for regarding ourselves in a positive light, as good and worthy people.
People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.
When a Professor of Psychology starts sounding like Rainer Maria Rilke1, you know he’s on to something.
1“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
John Turner (at The Anxious Bench, via Patheos) reviews Heather Vacek’s MADNESS: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness:
In her thoughtful and haunting Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness, Heather Vacek traces the ways that three centuries of Protestants understood and sough to alleviate afflictions of the mind. Vacek artfully constructs her narratives on five individuals: the turn-of-the-seventeenth-century Puritan theologian and minister Cotton Mather, the Revolutionary-era Presbyterian physician Benjamin Rush, Dix, the early twentieth-century Presbyterian clergyman Anton Boisen, and the renowned mid-twentieth-century Presbyterian psychiatrist Karl Menninger.”
Turner praises Vacek for focusing on experiential, rather than clinical, perspectives:
One reason Vacek’s case studies work so well is because most of her subjects lived with mental illness, either in themselves or through the presence of loved ones. Mather’s third wife, Lydia Lee George Mather, suffered from “raging madness,” which sometimes precipitated violence toward him. Rush’s son John spent twenty-seven years in a “cell” after falling into “melancholy brought on by killing a brother [naval] officer” in a duel. Dix suffered from depression and thoughts of suicide, and Boisen endured repeated breakdowns related to “unrequited romantic infatuations.” All of her subjects, moreover, whether ordained clergy or not, intimately knew the havoc mental illness wreaked in their congregations and communities.
Vacek’s observations — especially in her introduction and conclusion — should be required reading for, well, all Americans. More than40,000 Americans kill themselves each year. Millions suffer from serious mental illnesses. These issues touch all congregations and most extended families. In the face of not knowing what to do, most of us have chosen to do very little.
Finally, back at Aeon, Karuna Mantena offers an incisive analysis of “strategic nonviolence,” suggesting that current proponents are overlooking one key element of the strategy:
As activists came to prefer strategic nonviolence, suffering lost its central place in nonviolent politics. [Gene] Sharp [in THE POLITICS OF NONVIOLENT ACTION] sees suffering as part and parcel of principled nonviolence. It is the spiritual means by which nonviolence ‘converts’ the opposition, freeing both the oppressed and the oppressors from systemic injustice. Gandhi and King both held a spiritual commitment to nonviolence. Gandhi, in particular, worried that collective protest, even ostensibly nonviolent protest, can issue forms of coercion and intimidation. Suffering, however, was important politically. It has positive strategic and tactical effects in politics. It changes the tenor and dynamics of political contestation. And it has power: suffering can sway opponents and potential allies more effectively than brute force or outright confrontation. Moreover, suffering is ingrained in the form that nonviolent protest takes.
Nonviolence as collective power tries to match forces with and overwhelm opponents. Instead of intimidating or directly coercing the opposition, suffering aims to persuade and convert it. Persuasion involves its own strategic logic; it works by surprising, undermining, and outmaneuvering the enemy. Neither Gandhi nor King believed persuasion to be an easy or straightforward task. If claims to justice won easy acceptance through rational argument or explanation, there would be no need to employ nonviolent direct action.
Gandhi recognised very clearly the limits of rational debate in politics. He thought that people grew emotionally and psychologically attached to their beliefs as aspects of identity and ego. Emotional investment generates passions, resentment and indignation for example, that make rational debate and agreement very difficult. Suffering can break through to places that reason and argument cannot reach. Unlike brute force or direct confrontation that can stiffen resistance, Gandhi said that suffering works by:
“converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reason. Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I, and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head, but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering. It opens up the inner understanding in man.”
Suffering can weaken entrenched positions. It, unusually, can reach the heart of the opponent in ways that might lead to the rethinking of commitments.
Suffering often conjures up images of moving and exceptional feats of self-sacrifice, for example the Gandhian hunger-strike or the US Civil Rights activists enduring beatings. But suffering in Gandhi’s conception of it was less concerned with physical distress per se and something more along the lines of self-discipline in action.
“Suffering” is not high on the list of contemporary Western values; it is something we attempt to avoid, not to cultivate or to strategically deploy. But Ms. Mantena insists that willingness to suffer, and the self-discipline required to so, are essential for successful nonviolent efforts:
Successful movements try to mitigate these negative consequences through the style and structure of nonviolent protest enacted. By ‘enduring more suffering than it causes’ (in Niebuhr’s words) nonviolence demonstrates goodwill towards the opposition. Its discipline displays a moral purpose beyond resentment and selfish ambition. Together, goodwill and the repression of personal resentment temper the passionate resistance of opponents. Ideally, this tempering can help to weaken the opposition’s entrenched commitments. More often, it has a salutary effect on potential allies of the movement, the neutral observers and the public at large. When protestors adopt discipline in their comportment and dress, this negates portrayals of them as criminal elements or enemies of public order. The jeering opposition is now exposed as irrational and uncivil in their response to the civility of the protestors. Disciplined, temperate protestors can divert and reduce hostilities to help the public to see beyond the inflamed situation to the underlying dispute.
Given what is happening right now in our politics, Ms. Mantena has offered an absolutely timely reminder. Ostensibly nonviolent protest must not become just another form of violence and intimidation; it must be conducted with a sense of moral seriousness all too lacking in our civic conflicts. Ms. Mantena concludes:
Democratic politics are driven by the dynamics of passion and power. The open and continual contestation for power fuels resentments, antagonism and polarisation. Nonviolent suffering offers subtle and proven ways to overcome these tendencies and navigate the hard but necessary road of political persuasion. Retrieving this lost element at the core of 20th-century nonviolence is key to sustaining and shaping nonviolent politics for the 21st century.
Someone needs to get copies of this essay to all the various anti-Trump protesters who are perilously close to undermining their own efforts through their provocations.