Why finding meaning requires giving up control

Even though I am financially comfortable by objective standards, I’m in good health and my kids are doing well, I’m often worried whether I will be able to maintain this level of comfort. But if I allow myself to be held hostage by worry and fear, it will be difficult to let myself be absorbed by pursuing activities that are meaningful to me.

While living in a free and affluent part of the world, many of us are stuck on a treadmill, anxious to lose control over life. There seem to be more threats than opportunities. At the same time many people feel their lives have become devoid of purpose and significance. Albert Einstein once said: “The man who regards his life as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.” What do we need to do differently to allow meaning back into our lives?

Shackled by fear in chains of control we’re often withheld from what is truly meaningful to us.
Agriculture necessitated ‘control’

When 15,000 years ago humans gradually started farming their food instead of hunting or gathering it, they started thinking about securing their food supply with the use of technology. Technology as such wasn’t new by then; humans have made and used tools, as simple as sharpened stones, since at least 2 million years ago. With agriculture, by thinking ahead and planning the use of their labour, tools and resources, humans were able to better control the risks to their survival. They created a steadier supply of food and surpluses in case harvests failed.

Agriculture has fundamentally changed humans’ relationship to nature. Where they once formed a whole with nature living in it and from it, nature now increasingly became a resource they had to control and a potential threat to insulate themselves from. Fast forward to today and our quest for ‘control’ has yet to reach an end. It seems to be inherent to our very existence.

Living life on a treadmill? Sisyphus knows how you feel.
Punishment of Sisyphus by Titian (1548-1549)
Harari: If ‘control’ is the name of the game, AI will replace us

In his books ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’, Yuval Noah Harari has broken down this quest for control into three areas: 1) the secure production of food; 2) the eradication of disease, and; 3) the avoidance of violent conflict. In the 21st century however, by embracing technology to the degree that we do, humans run the risk of being replaced by technology itself, Harari contends. In other words, by centring life around our obsession with control, we will make ourselves obsolete, because machines can obsess with control much better.

Though before we get there, ethicists may play a decisive role, according to Harari, when they help determine the ethical rules embedded in Artificial Intelligence algorithms.

It is very interesting to philosophise about how ‘ethical AI’ should work. What are the moral rules that should be applied? What is the hierarchy of moral goods that AI should strive for? What sort of things should determine AI’s ultimate purpose? Can AI be programmed for ‘purpose’ in the first place?

Isn’t it ironic that we should be worried about these questions for the sake of programming AI, when we can’t even answer these questions for ourselves? We often don’t even bother to reflect on them properly even though many people have a great pent up need for re-orienting their life towards the good.

You can’t program for purpose
Is the pursuit of happiness a death trap?

So will humanity soon be gone and does it have to be this way?

Ever since the advent of humanism around 1500 AD many humans in western Europe have evolved their consciences to become self-reflective. By this I mean that we have slowly been freed of powers that did the thinking for us and consequently forced us into a moral straightjacket. We have done away with oppressive forms of religion, we have brought government under democratic control and we have curtailed the public domain of society. “God is dead”, Nietzsche wrote, not as an argument for atheism, but to point out that we have abolished a central source of moral inspiration that used to give meaning to life. We have focused life on the pursuit of happiness and we have replaced God with the market economy to cater to our needs.

As a result Western societies are highly individualised. Even though ‘group think’ and emulating models still drive much of our behaviour, what remains of a sense of community is often short-lived, specific to a particular situation and requiring conscious volition and continuous effort. Whether this is an improvement to yesteryears remains to be seen; I’m slightly sceptical. However, with all that freedom also comes a great opportunity.

“Sapere aude” – Dare to think, Immanuel Kant said.
An artist resting by the roadside by Jørgen Roed (1832)
Use your brain … for reflection!

The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote “sapere aude”: dare to think. For according to Kant our ability to think, and thereby to create conscious choices, is what grants us our freedom.

Now that the preferences produced by our thoughts are least constrained by church, state and society, our response to the questions life poses have never been more important. Not just because of the consequences for our personal lives. It is how we shape our world together that will depend on that response.

For this is the great illusion of our times: that we have raised the individual to be the center of the universe has blinded us to the fact that as individual human beings we are always in search for meaning, for what resonates with us.

As Martin Buber has taught us, it is only by focusing our attention on nature, art, another human being or a higher calling that we can escape the loneliness of being a Cartesian ‘subject’ that always opposes itself to the ‘objects’ that make up our world. According to Hannah Arendt we need others to accord to us a sense of identity, which defines the meaning of our existence to them and vice versa.

Bacchus invites you to live the resonant life.
Bacchus by Caravaggio (1598)
Resonance as a way to sense meaning … if you allow yourself to be ‘touched’

What matters is what resonates. When we focus our thinking on ‘control’, we shut ourselves off from resonance. Because resonance requires that we give up control and allow ourselves to be touched, to be brought in resonant motion, to be moved by something other than ourselves.

Those who are continually focussed on ‘control’ driven by fear, will have difficulty escaping the notion that life is meaningless. Albert Einstein once said: “The man who regards his life as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life.”

Could using our freedom in a meaningful way lie in focussing our attention on what resonates with us?

“Action, with all its uncertainties, is like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die, but to begin something new”

Hannah Arendt

Viktor Frankl wrote: “Being human, means being in the face, of meaning to fulfil, and values to realise. It means living in the polar field of tension, established between reality and ideals to materialise. Humans live by ideals and values. Human existence is not authentic, unless it is lived in terms of self-transcendence. Ultimately, humans should not ask what the meaning of their life is, but rather must recognise that it is they who are asked. In a word, each human being is questioned by life; and they can only answer to life by answering for their own life; to life they can only respond by being responsible.”

I wish that you may use the freedom and affluence that you live in today, to give careful thought to these questions: What does life ask from me? What resonates with me? How can I muster the courage to truly respond to life?

Wishing you a restful and reflective festive season and an inspired start to the New Year!

Further reading on resonance: Resonance by Hartmut Rosa

Another related article of mine: Deathbed regrets: examine your fears to avoid them

Some questions to help you reflect

  • If you would rate your current life on a scale of 1-10, how high would you rate it? What makes that it’s not a 10 out of 10? What do you long for?
  • Do you have ‘a dream’ or wish for the future? Have you told anyone about it? How can you make it real?
  • What would happen if you worked 1 day a week less and used that time for something that is (more) meaningful to you? If that thought makes you feel uncomfortable explore what makes it so.
  • What would happen if you quit your job for your ‘perfect job’ paying say half the salary?
  • How often is your mind completely absorbed in your work that you forget about time (flow)?
  • Have you ever had a conversation or an experience with your closest colleagues that profoundly moved you? If so, what was it? If not, would you like that to change? How well do you and your colleagues really know each other?
  • When was the last time you were truly inspired? Does that happen often enough?
What does life ask from me?

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1 thought on “Why finding meaning requires giving up control”

  1. Good to read Rik, you always get me thinking about how much discomfort I put up with in my working life. And how happy I am to no longer be living that lifestyle. Although, the opportunities to travel with the job and play rugby with great people in far off lands was a great reason to put up with organisational discomfort.

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