After Alexander the Great conquered the world, he cried, and not out of joy. Many Olympians, after their gold medal win, spiral into a deep depression. In both cases, the lives of exceptional people face a loss of meaning. Whether it is strategizing to rout the kingdoms of near Asia or waking up early to train, the intermediary steps of our life are justified by our long-term goals and projects. If those goals are victory or conquest, we are bound to find ourselves at a loss after we have achieved our aim. What was the point—what is the point now?
That question, What is the point? is not a question only for athletes and emperors. It is a question that life addresses to every human person. Human beings are, in the words of the philosopher David McPherson, meaning-seeking animals. When we act, we act for reasons and with long-term aims in mind. No sooner have we satisfied our basic needs than we ask ourselves, “Why?” Getting out of bed, going to work, doing the dishes, trimming the lawn—none of these carry their own ultimate justification within themselves.
Not all of us have swimming championships or territorial wars to drive us on. We seek our meaning in a host of other ways: in ambition, peer approval, career advancement, and many other things besides. But inasmuch as these achievements fail to constitute a final meaning to our daily life, they still leave us in what the psychologist Viktor Frankl called an “existential vacuum.” The human psyche, he believed, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and will always seek to fill it with whatever is nearest at hand.
Today, we find ourselves alienated from many of the strong sources of meaning capable of filling that vacuum, things like community life, family life, religious faith and practice. In the absence of such things, social media and online discourse proffer themselves as vessels of meaning, as places where we can find meaning substitutes or simulacra of more authentically meaning-giving activities. That doesn’t mean that we think of ourselves explicitly in terms of looking for meaning, but if we jump on the outrage bandwagon, for instance, we are looking for the meaning found in belonging to a community that is working for the good, or in defeating the wicked, or in being respected and admired. But these platforms are particularly poorly adapted to providing routes to real meaning and shape our psyches and our habits instead toward pseudo-meanings, like the experience of acclaim and affirmation, the cheap performance of moral rectitude, or the self-righteous condemnation of others that, at its worst, bleeds into real-life aggression. The meaning might be fake, but the damage is not.
Frankl, in order to address such existential vacuums, founded a school of psychological analysis known as “logotherapy,” from the Greek word logos, or meaning. Frankl, born in Vienna in 1905, became fascinated with psychology early on. As a medical student, he organized youth counselling centres in response to a rash of teen suicides after report-card time at the end of the school year. (Already he was looking to ground people in real, and not counterfeit, meanings.) After medical school, he became a clinician in a psychiatric hospital, working mostly with suicidal women, before moving to the Jewish hospital, where in 1940 he began sheltering patients from the Nazi euthanasia program. Shortly thereafter, he and his family were shipped off to Terezín concentration camp, where they were separated. His family died in the camps while Frankl spent three years imprisoned at different facilities before the war ended. Throughout each of these experiences, Frankl was developing his theory and testing it against life.
Frankl premised his approach on the idea that the drive for meaning is fundamental in humans, which, properly satisfied, leads to flourishing. When this drive fails to develop in a healthy way, however, it can lead to all sorts of neurotic behaviour, as the patient turns to destructive habits or patterns in an attempt to appease the fundamental urge. Frankl seemed to foresee some of the pathologies we observe online today, and the insights of his logotherapeutic approach could help us to live better online and off.
Every age has its own collective neurosis, Frankl says, and ours is existential frustration. If this was true decades ago when Frankl wrote it, the patterns that made it true, a decline in belief in the transcendent and weakening of community ties, are only truer now than they were then. When you combine existential frustration with practical idleness, with time not driven by concrete tasks and necessary goods to be achieved, you may get a toxic brew. Frankl writes, “The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. . . . These problems are growing increasingly crucial, because increased automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with their newly acquired free time.” What he could not have predicted was that these leisure hours would be filled by social media, a low-cost venue for political radicalism, ideology, and other pseudo-values. This is true even though we perceive ourselves to be very busy, especially if we are busy about things that are not very meaningful, or if our work is constantly punctuated and accompanied by the running commentary of social media.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote that the modern Western person “has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.” In the absence of such life-shaping meaning, we are apt to seek meaning substitutes. There are countless ways to do this, a few of which have been mentioned above, but there are several ways that pose a special danger to the health of the political community. Without a life orientation, Frankl writes, a person either “does what other people do (conformism) or what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
Shadi Hamid, in a recent piece in The Atlantic, traced a similar pattern to the one identified by Frankl, noting that the decline of religious belief and practice did not indicate a decline in certain kinds of religious behaviour but only displaced them. “As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen,” he writes, “American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
Hamid goes on to cite the theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper and the political theorist Samuel Goldman in defence of the “law of conservation of religion,” which states that religious fervour is consistent across times and societies. If it is not found in churches, it will be found elsewhere. Often that religious fervour, when applied to political movements, can prove volatile: a zealous defence of political signifiers that provide meaning in struggle and victory. “There are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power,” Frankl writes. This need not be power in a straightforward sense. It could be the power of being acclaimed or affirmed, or even of being notorious.
On social media networks, this phenomenon is amplified by the efficiencies of the algorithms that bring to our attention more of what we already like. Among the things we like best, it seems, is moral judgment, outrage, and self-righteousness. William J. Brady and Jay J. Van Bavel, psychologists at Yale and New York University respectively, in a meta-analysis of all available testing data on what is called “moral contagion,” found that for every moral-emotional term used in a social media post there was a 12 percent increase in the likelihood of its being shared. This held across political issues and across social media platforms.
The trouble is, of course, that social media users do not have the time to seriously investigate the moral claims they see, and these claims make no substantive demand on them, and thus they can be amplified without regard to value or veracity. Think of the Kony 2012 campaign, very loosely based on facts about a Ugandan warlord, which so engulfed my generation of high schoolers, or even of the legitimate concerns that have social media users preening and asking for attention from a tragedy that hardly touched them. (I’m thinking here of Instagram users posting long excursuses on police killings.) Think again of the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and have led to real-world violence. The temptation for cheap moral satisfaction—for struggle, condemnation, praise, and victory—is universal, and the existential vacuum is its frequent cause.
In its worst manifestation, the existential vacuum and the drive to fill it leads to violent extremism. The psychological literature, as well as the literature from government security agencies, identifies, in the words of social psychologist Aries Kruglanski, the “quest for significance” as lying behind political radicalization. This quest, in turn, is occasioned by the loss of some other, deeper source of meaning. With the crisis of an old form of meaning there comes the desire to root identity in a new source of strong meaning—namely, the ideology or movement.
We need to offer alienated people authentic meanings, routes that guide them to place and purpose in the service of real human values, and not to violence or political radicalism. For Frankl, the solution was to plug the alienated, the bored, and those in crisis into face-to-face service in their own communities. The neurotic and toxic manifestations of the existential vacuum evaporated when that space filled with the goal, the meaning, of neighbourly service.
In the concentration camp, Viktor Frankl had observed with a psychiatrist’s eye the human personality stripped down to its bare constituents. He saw the naked soul under the influence of, on the one hand, unaccountable power and, on the other, nearly hopeless suffering. It was not true that men and women merely reverted to ruthless survival instincts or to base urges in these circumstances. Rather, they revealed what was most fundamental in their characters. Those who had found a transcendent source of meaning could be capable of carrying on through the hardest trials, and of giving themselves, even to the last drop. In living, even internally, according to such a meaning, we can salvage our humanity, it seems, in the most inhuman circumstances.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously constructed a hierarchy of human needs, which, he held, characterized personal development and the drivers of human motivation. At the bottom were the basic physical necessities of life, and at the top, once all our other practical needs have been satisfied, was self-actualization. The insight of logotherapy is that self-actualization, in Frankl’s words, is only possible as a side effect of self-transcendence. Self-actualization comes in virtue of giving oneself to a meaning outside of oneself.
Our social media interactions are not conducive to genuine self-transcendence, because their very structure feeds self-centredness. This is because success and reward on these applications revolve around approval-seeking, and that which generates the most approval is the performance of rash emotional-moral judgment. What is more, that which we already desire, for good or ill, is reinforced by the algorithms that cater to our clicks, confining our world ever more neatly to that which we already know and approve of.
This does not mean that these platforms are valueless, or that we cannot interact meaningfully with them, only that the structures that govern the interactions on social media are not conducive to healthy patterns of meaning-finding. If we are virtuous, we may approach social media well; but social media is unlikely to form us virtuously.
If we are virtuous, we may approach social media well; but social media is unlikely to form us virtuously.
In humble service to neighbour, our souls are tutored to come out of themselves and to pursue the authentic values that lie, not in power and domination, but in service and self-sacrifice for some good. In these contacts, we can no longer play the consumer, tailoring our experience to our taste. Instead, we must submit ourselves to a norm larger than our tastes or desires.
Social media is like a machine designed to malform our drive for meaning. This is true for everyone from alienated young men who become radical jihadists, to moms on Facebook sharing conspiracy theories, to Gen Z TikTok users desperately seeking moral approbation by issuing pronouncements in favour of the latest cause.
The final truth of the camps, as embodied by those like Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who laid down his life for a stranger at Auschwitz, was that the fullest meaning in a human life was found in making oneself a gift to others. In other words, Frankl drew from the pit of pain and death the extraordinary conclusion that the highest meaning of our life is love.
To log off and go to logotherapy means to turn to our real, concrete relationships, to our work, to our leisure, and to find out what loving meaning lies within them, and then to live in accord with that. Love is not only the meaning, the final aim to which our lives point, but also the means to getting there. The road to love is love itself.
To find the meaning we seek, we have to learn to see more deeply than social media allows us to see. “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him.” Frankl writes that by love we are “able to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, [to see] what is yet potential in him.” And this, perhaps, is the most poisonous part of online life, that we judge and condemn and fail to see the potential in every person that only love reveals.
Better, then, to meet each other face to face, and to seek out by way of love the path toward the meaningful life that is constituted by love. And we must not meet only those who are like us and with whom we sympathize. We must encounter each person with the unconditional principle that they are possessed of an inviolable dignity.
Meaning is tied up in personal encounter, and personal encounter works best face to face. In the interest of offering something concrete to do, and at the risk of sounding like a pop psychologist, I have outlined below a number of logotherapeutic steps we can take to address our lack of meaning. As the pandemic, God willing, comes to an end, therefore, here are five logotherapeutic prescriptions for the online soul:
- Identify the person nearest to you who lives a meaningful life; become their apprentice.
In every community, there are those individuals who have identified a meaning sufficient for grounding a life. These are the people who have found what gift they have to give, and made their life about giving it. They might be fathers, mothers, mechanics, lunch ladies, retirees, accountants, or anything else, but they have oriented their life toward serving their family, their neighbours, their community. They are energized and made resilient by a meaning that is beyond themselves, which likely has a spiritual root, and which manifests in a sort of self-assuredness and generosity. Someone around you is like this, perhaps very near at hand. Get to know them. Take them as a model. Learn from them.
- Wash dirty clothes for someone who doesn’t have the means.
In washing laundry at the homeless shelter, or in whatever local form of service we might find, there is not much glory, but there are real people who could use a hand. This kind of service is an antidote to false values, which are small beer compared to full-proof self-transcendence. The false promise of online righteousness is but pale imitation of true self-gift. Working locally for our neighbours demands that we shape ourselves toward authentic service.
- Do somebody else’s dishes.
Self-transcendence is not the work of a once-weekly service opportunity; it is the very stuff of life. Do you live with someone? Do you have a job? There are probably dishes to do that are not your own. In the concentration camps, Frankl observed fellow prisoners offering their last scraps of bread to other hungry captives. This same self-transcendence is born in the little moments that make up the stuff of life.
- Write down a list of your sufferings and those who are to blame, then burn it.
For Frankl, the final refuge of meaning was in that interiority that nothing can take from us. A totalitarian government, an illness, a disaster can take away our comfort, our pleasures, our abilities, our chances of flourishing. But they cannot take away our interior freedom, that which determines how we respond, whether we bear up under the burden and suffer with nobility or fall into resentment. This final inner spontaneity, Frankl said, is what remained untouched in the camps. Despite everything, you can choose to love, and even to make your suffering an act of love.Resentment is a fountainhead for pseudo-values. It can be easily dressed up in the garments of righteousness and can thus be found at the root of our ideological crusades. Most of us are not in the extreme of a prison camp, but we still deal with myriad sufferings: If we are not content with our position, for whatever reason, the easiest route to meaning is to blame someone else for our lot. Whether the blame is justified or not, this attitude disempowers us, and leads us to bemoan and hate another rather than to find an authentic meaning to our suffering. To do away with blame and resentment is the first step toward warding off false meanings and identifying those true meanings that correspond to justice and neighbourly love.
It must be noted that ridding oneself of resentment is not the same as abandoning accountability or foregoing justice. Rather, it is a way of purifying justice, making it honest and authentic, and perhaps even crowning it with mercy.
- Clean up some garbage at the park.
Each of us is the beneficiary of certain common goods. Less frequently do we work to protect, conserve, or establish the goods we share with our community. Chances are there is a park or a patch of woods near you. Assume responsibility for them, not because you have to, but because they are there, and you are part of the community that shares them. Frankl wrote that, if there was to be a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, there ought to be a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Responsibility for what is near to us brings us away from selfishness, away from antagonism, and toward the meaning that is found in solidarity.
Each of us is on our own “quest for significance,” each seeking to fill that existential hunger for meaning within us. Absent authentic meaning, we are apt to turn to false and destructive purposes that aid neither us nor our fellow persons. At its worst, this existential vacuum can result in the violence of radical movements or in “deaths of despair.”
The stakes may not always be as high for us as they were for Frankl, but the search for meaning remains constant. Our time has a high case-rate of existential frustration, and the symptoms are not pretty. Happily, there’s a therapy for this collective neurosis, and we can discover it by finding our own way to use what we are and what we have in the service of our neighbours.
Love is not only the meaning, the final aim to which our lives point, but also the means to getting there. The road to love is love itself.
There is always a risk, because of what we are as human beings, that even service can become about aggrandizing ourselves, about our own achievement, or about our superiority over others. The process of overcoming the self and replacing it with the good is the work of a lifetime, never complete. We need not have reached this perfect self-forgetfulness to be good, though, or to counter our existential frustration. We need only find a purpose to make sense of our lives, to draw us on toward something sturdy and noble enough to anchor our days.
The prescription Frankl offers is this: to find the particular meaning of our life by identifying where our capabilities meet our context and finding therein a call to love. Doing this, we can assimilate unfairness, setbacks, joys, and disappointments into the overall shape of a life lived for our neighbour. Practically, this means taking concrete stock of where we are and who we are; it means understanding the opportunities and limitations of our own particular circumstance and identifying what this calls us to. Even in the darkness of the camps, there is room in human freedom for making meaningful choices. Most of us, praise God, are never in so dreadful a state, but each of us is called by life to make an answer: How will you live meaningfully? A healthy community, a healthy society, needs a good supply of those who have made a proper response. We need to log off, then, and find out what life is asking of us.