The fundamental search for meaning is fraught with stumbling blocks in our lives. The ubiquitous challenge is that the secular world attempts to shaped our lives throughout stages of our development to meet the expectations of others (Erikson, 1963). Behavior has been rewarded for performance in athletics, education, and career development elevating selfhood in the attainment of goal pursuits This creates a perception of success as measured by possessions and affluence (Bandura, 1977).
However, what has been stuffed down during this journey is our sense of "self," who we are, and who we always have been. It represents a steady fragmentation of our true identity. To illustrate how this begins, Levine (2002) argues individuals try on new identities as early as middle school in order to assimilate into peer groups in school. Each time this layering process occurs, they superimpose and adorn elements that are artificial and incongruent with their authentic "self." While they consciously justify this accommodation, that loss of "self" formatively progresses to what may become a state of ambiguity.
Ambiguity is antithetical to the search for meaning. This cognitive dissonance creates uncertainty that may lead to analysis paralysis. Breaking free from this cycle is a challenge that entraps individuals in their search for vintages of "self" that have been obscured. Navigating life’s turning points for these cognitive reference points becomes tenuous, creating stress, and impacting their mental health.
To augment ambiguity requires embracing an new attitudinal perspective. We are taught that selfhood and finding meaning on a linear pathway to success is constructed through self-empowerment and acquiring materialism (Lyubomirsky, 2010). However, evidence suggests that sustainable happiness requires something more. If so, then perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with the premise of putting one’s "self" first in order to find meaning. To better understand this, Frankl (2014) argues the “will-to meaning” is a primal dynamic force compelling an individuative search for fulfillment that can only be attained be each unique individual. Importantly, that yearning for meaning is God ordained (Frankl, 2006). Therefore, what this illuminates it that this is an innate drive that by design is connected to a power beyond the "self."
This suggests that self-actualized meaning is not purely powered by the “self,” as Maslow espoused, but rather through a process of transcendence of purpose that he later adopted from Frankl. If as Newberg, D'Aquili, and Rause (2001) stipulate, that the human mind was hard-wired to actualize meaning through this transcendent power, then it can be argued that mankind was designed to find this through our connectedness to others in relationships, rather than relying solely upon selfhood (Frankl, as cited by Leider, 2015). Buber (1970) articulates this by using a painting in a museum as a metaphor to differentiate an “I-It” and “I-Thou” encounter. In looking at a painting as an object (It), we regard “It” as something pleasing and useful, but when the essence (Thou) of what the artist is actualized, it becomes an “I-Thou” moment, where transcendence of the meaning is revealed. The message here is that in this world we often treat individuals as objects (It’s) that are used to achieve our goals, rather than looking for the good in each and connecting to realize something extraordinary.
What we were designed for is to engage in “I-Thou” moments with others, valuing who they are, and what we can achieve as a collective (Buber, 1977). In those moments, the transcendence of purpose is awakened in what we do because it becomes a reflection of who we are. The importance of this distinction is that this requires an attitudinal adjustment. Giving of our “self” to others surrenders the “self” and becomes a self-less act. The impetus holds no expectations of reward, other than to share our inherent gifts in the service of a project or a cause to achieve something of value. What occurs in this environment is a connectedness with what truly matters, which stands in opposition to what is purely a self-centered goal pursuit.
Methods Narratives. To augment ambiguity, narratives are introduced to draw out patterns and themes used to reconstruct our identity. This co-constructive process revisits earlier experiences that confirm character strengths that we have always adorned or adopted from role models that reflect our true identity before life got in the way (Savickas, 1995; Bandura, 1977). That moral compass that guided us in our youth, re-emerges as an authentication of our true "self" and serves as a mechanism to cycle out of an existential vacuum of ambiguity (Frankl, 2014; Savickas, 1995).
Acts of kindness. Davidson and Begley (2013) argue that the emotional life of the brain is hard-wired to react to both stress and acts of kindness. In their research, brain mapping evidences that ambiguity may be ameliorated through protracted acts of kindness that alters the brain over time. Neuroplasticity in effect represents the propensity for a cognitive reset. Importantly, when we actively give of our “self,” individuals respond to this authenticate action that is actualized by the visual cortex, creating an emotional response that validates the efficacy of this endeavor (Davidson & Begley, 2013). We simply witness the effect of our giving from our innermost “self” and are rewarded with something inexplicable; the power to enhance the life of another.
Conclusion Formatively, reconstructing an identity through the search for meaning has the proclivity to subdue anxiety and ambiguity. It is an attitudinal change that tunes both the heart and mind to the need to share our inborn gifts with others in a purpose driven process (Leider, 2015). It is that joy that emanates from problem solving with a tangible and value driven purpose where what we give contributes to a meaningful solution. It is in the deployment of our innate talent, passion and value oriented beliefs, in the service of others or for a cause, that actualizes the “why” of what we do and evokes an understanding that what we do truly matters. Ultimately, meaning is manifest through connecting with others who work toward the same goals, where we become “givers,” rather than self-centered “takers.” Ultimately, this crystalizes into what may resemble our calling in life, to do what we were designed for, and to live into that newfound identity where we become whole. References Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. New York: Scribner. Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2013). The emotional life of your brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live - and how you can change them. New York: Plume. Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton. Frankl, V. E. (2014). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. NY, NY: Plume. Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. Leider, R. (2015). The power of purpose: Find meaning, live longer, better. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler. Levine, M. (2002). A mind at a time. New York: Simon and Schuster. Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). The how of happiness: A practical guide to getting the life you want. London: Piatkus. Newberg, A. B., D'Aquili, E. G., & Rause, V. (2001). Why God won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Ballantine Books. Savickas, M. L. (1995). Examining the Personal Meaning of Inventoried Interests During Career Counseling. Journal of Career Assessment,3(2), 188-201. doi:10.1177/106907279500300206