Finding Meaning

I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that read: “Join a Hilarious Adventure of a Lifetime! Work, Buy, Consume, Die.” It’s funny because it’s true…so it’s also not really that funny. Reflecting on it a bit further, I find it to be a provocative comment on what seems to be the norm in modern culture, especially in the United States.

We go to school. If we’re lucky, we get a job related to our degree and/or interests. Then we work for roughly forty years until we’re able to retire, which (if I understand retirement commercials correctly) is the time of life we all look forward to, the time we really get to do the things we love, spend time with our families, and enjoy some peace and quiet for our remaining fifteen or twenty-ish years (and that’s if we’re statistically fortunate; the current average life expectancy in the U.S is only seventy-eight).

This meme got me thinking about how we choose to live our lives and from where we derive meaning. What are the things to which we devote the most time and energy? For most people, at least based on what I’ve observed, it’s our job. We spend more hours at work than we do at home with our families, or relaxing, or enjoying hobbies, or in church.

I don’t want to look back when (God willing) I’m pushing eighty and see a life full of work- or money-related stress, too little time off, and too much energy put toward material things that ultimately fade away. I don’t want to live the life of the meme.

I want to do well in my work, sure; I want to be proud of what I accomplish, and I hope to accomplish something worthwhile. But ultimately, what I do for a living, what I buy with my money, and whatever successes or accolades I achieve (degrees, promotions, awards)—in the end, these things don’t define me. I’m not saying that our actions don’t shape or reflect our character; of course they do. But the “American Dream,” or maybe I should call it the “Retirement Dream,” is ultimately unfulfilling: work long and hard, save your money, settle down…and then what?

I recently read an article in The Atlantic called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article tells of Jewish psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and lived to write about it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the major points of his book is that the difference he observed between those in the camps who lived and those who died was a sense of meaning. The article includes one quotation in particular from Frankl’s book that resonates with me:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.

As a Christian, my cause, my purpose, my meaning lies with Christ. But it’s not just for me; I believe that meaning for all of humanity is found in Christ. It is our inheritance, freely given to us, in which we are created to participate. Everything else is secondary. And that, far more than any “American Dream” or narrative of hard work and success, gives me profound comfort.

“Two’s company, three’s a crowd … and four’s an environmental disaster!”

One would think that if anyone’s genes need reproducing, David and Victoria Beckham would have approval. But even in our success-obsessed culture today, the achievement and beauty of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham is not enough to get them off the hook among those who believe that one’s family size should be a debate for the whole world to weigh in on.

Recently, an article in the UK Guardian criticized the Beckhams after the birth of their fourth child, Harper Seven, calling them “environmentally irresponsible.”  Simon Ross, chief executive of the UK based Optimum Population Trust was critical of the couple: “We need to change the incentives to make the environmental case that one or two children are fine but three or four are just being selfish . . . The Beckhams, and others like London mayor Boris Johnson [who also has four children], are very bad role models with their large families.” He went on to argue, as do many who are concerned with the world’s population, that with 7 billion people in the world and counting,  “there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.”

Mr. Ross, like others with concerns about overpopulation and the world’s food supply, fail to take a few things into account.  When Thomas Malthus predicted in the 1800’s that the population would overtake the food supply, he failed to also predict the impact of the Industrial Revolution, along with many subsequent technological innovations that allow crops to be grown faster and in harsher climates than he could have possibly imagined.

The concern about resource depletion isn’t a proven science, and studies show that human capital and labor productivity are what actually drive the increases and reductions of resources.  What’s more, worries about overpopulation disregard the principle that life is inherently good. Even if humans and the environment existed adversarially (though I believe that they don’t), human life is still an unqualified good. The choice for life shouldn’t be made on the basis of environmental concerns, though all our decisions about consumption should certainly be with prudence. And empirically speaking, if there’s a crisis in our world today, it’s underpopulation. Most countries in Europe, for example, are seeing birth rates drop below replacement levels (looked at Russia lately?), though immigration will contribute some stability to these nations’ numbers.

While we must certainly care for the environment, the answer is not that families or developed nations are to blame. Even if developed nations use a larger proportion of the earth’s natural resources, the technology coming out of these countries allows many people in the developing world to be fed, and affords a greater quality of life to everyone around the globe. The earth’s resources are not a pie whose portion for everyone at the party shrinks as new guests arrive. Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, argues that because each person has unique value, “more people means more for all of us — more economic production, more potential for artistic and scientific achievement, more innovation.” And speaking of innovation, two hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, we are still not running out of food.

What is more unsustainable than the current rate of population growth is the increasing numbers of people who do not grow up in stable, married families. Dr. Henry Potrykus, of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, recently released “Our Fiscal Crisis” detailing the relationship between the future of America’s economy and the proportion of intact, married families. It is impossible for a country to remain strong when fewer than half of its citizens grow up in homes that do not offer the stability that marriage provides.  This holds true for any nation, not just the U.S., and the negative effects of broken homes are well-documented.

David and Victoria Beckham have remained committed to one another in marriage, thus demonstrating what is right about families in Britain. To the Beckhams I say, Congratulations! The begetting and raising of human life in the context of marriage is one of the greatest adventures in the world. You are setting a good example for the world to follow.

Family Facts #41

Looking up to their mothers as a female role model has predominantly psychological health benefits for youth. Both male and female students who did not look up to their mothers and perceive them as positive role models exhibited more psychological distress than those who did.

“Role Models and Psychosocial Outcomes Among African-American Adolescents”
Bryant, Alison L.
and Zimmerman, Marc A.
Journal of Adolescent Research Vol. 18, Number 1. , 2003. Page(s) 36-67.

Family Facts #40

Girls whose parents were separated, divorced, or widowed were more likely to develop eating disorders than peers from intact families. Girls who read teen magazines weekly were also more likely to develop eating disorders than peers who did not read such magazines as often.

“Parental Factors, Mass Media Influences and the Onset of Eating Disorders in a Prospective Population-Based Cohort”
Marinez-Gonzalez, Miquel A.
Pediatrics Vol. 111, Number 2. , 2003. Page(s) 315-320.

Family Facts #39

Compared with childless peers, new parents had higher levels of social integration with relatives, friends, and neighbors.

“Costs and Rewards of Children: The Effects of Becoming a Parent on Adults’ Lives”
Nomaguchi, Kei M.
Milkie, Melissa A.
Journal of Marriage and Family Vol. 65, Number . May, 2003. Page(s) 356-374.

Family Facts #38

Divorce results in a drop in income causing parents to be worried, exhausted, and stressed in handling multiple roles, thereby affecting their parenting and parental control and giving rise to children’s disruptive behavior.

“Children’s Behavior Problems in Single-Parent and Married-Parent Families: Development of Predictive Model”
Hilton, Jeanne M.
Desrochers, Stephan
Journal of Divorce & Remarriage Vol. 37, Number . , 2003. Page(s) 13-34.

Family Facts #37

The more often teenagers have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs. In fact, compared with teens who have frequent family dinners, those who have dinner with their families only two nights per week or less are at double the risk of substance abuse. Compared with teens who have dinner with their families only two nights per week or less, those who have family dinners five or more nights in a typical week are more likely to report that they have never tried cigarettes (85 percent vs. 65 percent), almost 50 percent likelier to report that they have never tried alcohol (68 percent vs. 47 percent), and more likely to report that they have never tried marijuana (88 percent vs. 71 percent).

“The Importance of Family Dinners”
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
CASA Survey Report: The Importance of Family Dinners Vol. NA, Number . September, 2003. Page(s) 3, 7.

Family Facts #36

While a woman’s intimate premarital relationship that was exclusively with her husband did not affect the risk of marital disruption, having at least one other intimate relationship prior to marriage was linked to an increased risk of divorce (The increase in risk associated with having had a sexual relationship with another partner ranged from 53 percent to 119 percent). The risk of divorce is substantially higher if the woman not only had a sexual relationship with another man before marriage but also cohabited with that partner. (This increase in risk is as high as 166 percent).

“Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution Among Women”
Teachman, Jay
Journal of Marriage and Family Vol. 65, Number . May, 2003. Page(s) 444-455.

Family Facts #35

When controlling for available resources, African American and Hispanic couples were consistently more likely to provide assistance to elderly parents than white couples were.

“Assistance to Aging Parents and Parents-In-Law: Does Lineage Affect Family Allocation Decisions?”
Shuey, Kim
Hardy, Melissa A.
Journal of Marriage and Family Vol. 65, Number . May, 2003. Page(s) 418-431.

Family Facts #34

Compared with peers who were cared for at home, preschoolers who attended day-care centers used health-care services more often. Day-care children were at greater risk of contracting both minor communicable illnesses and more significant medical problems such as hepatitis, injuries, and chronic otitis media (ear infections). They were three times more likely to have made at least one visit to a doctor’s office, twice as likely to have visited an emergency room, and almost three times as likely to have received a prescription medication. This increased use of health services resulted in health-care expenditures for day-care children that were, on average, $343 higher per child each year.

“Health Care Utilization and Expenditures Associated with Child Care Attendance: A Nationally Representative Sample”
Silverstein, Michael
Sales, Anne E., and Koepsell, Thomas D.
Pediatrics Vol. 111, Number 4. April, 2003. Page(s) e317-e375.