The Vacuum of Choosing Happiness Over Meaning

“Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does.”Friedrich Nietzsche

In the episode of the Middle Ground Podcast, A Return To Meaning, I discussed the quandary of modern humans and their shortsighted tendency to prioritize happiness over meaning. What’s intriguing about this topic is that Nietzsche, one of the West’s most influential philosophers, is sadly only know for his statement, “God is dead”. But even in this it is most telling that in an age of truncated statements, most of those who cheer Nietzsche’s statement do so without having read what his commentary on the statement was, namely that once religion/belief in God was removed, mankind would spiral off into despair, a result of meaning no longer being a pursuit1. Where once a believer could contrast his life on earth to a life in the Here-After, now we are left with contrasting our lives with objects: How we possess them (always needing the latest gadget, for example) and how many of them we possess. In a further turn of irony, Nietzsche, an atheist, turned to his “Übermensch” theory as a way for modern man to make his own values to establish meaning. The problem with Nietzsche’s Übermensch was that he felt it was out of reach; it was in a way a kind of utopia, the place which literally “does not exist”. In many ways Nietzsche, in his attempt to resolve the gaze of abyss2, created a perspective that drew upon a religious cosmology. There seems to be no escaping religion — even if only in the realm of imagination — for the atheist.

Nietzsche’s prescient insight into the challenges we face today should leave modern Muslims with much to contemplate. As I mentioned in the podcast, some of this can be seen in how increasing numbers of Muslims are prioritizing emotions (chiefly, happiness) over meaning, leading many to feel a loss of faith. For the one who pursue happiness, they may find themselves incessantly departing but never arriving. For according to Nietzsche, meaning is what we really long for.

Notes

1. Hendricks, Scotty. “‘God is Dead’: What Nietzsche Really Meant”. Big Think, 12 Aug. 2016, http://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/what-nietzsche-really-meant-by-god-is-dead.

2. Aphorism #146. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans. Ian Johnston. Beyond Good And Evil: Prelude To A Philosophy Of The Future. Arlington, Richer Resources Publications, 2009.

#MiddleGroundPodcast – A Return To Meaning


[Direct download]

In this episode, I speak about how ritual and meaning are increasingly seen as things not only trivial or perhaps juvenile, but also something scornful, a reminder of a not-so-distant past many would like to pretend never existed, when life was not able to be safely and comfortably quantified.

The loss of meaning’s appreciation can also be linked to western educational institutions:

“Its emphasis on specialization meant that most professors considered the question of meaning beyond their purview … The question of how to live, after all, requires a discussion of abstract, personal, and moral values. It does not belong, these professors argued, in colleges and universities devoted to the accumulation of objective knowledge … An increasing consensus in the academy is that faculty members should not help students discern a meaningful philosophy of life or develop character, but should instead help them master the content and methodology of a given discipline and learn critical thinking.”1

This can be seen manifesting in the Muslim community in a number of ways, such as how Muslims (especially western Muslims) approach the month long ritual of fasting in the month of Ramadan. Social media will shortly be a flurry with posts recommending this or that suhur (or pre-dawn) smoothie which promises to reduce or even eliminate fatigue and hunger. How odd that the practitioners of a faith would want to minimize the experience of one of its most important rituals: but that is precisely what we see happening with Islam in the West. Increasingly we seem to be saying, “ritual and religious experience, particularly those that ask us to give up something or daresay, even experience something uncomfortable, we don’t want any part of it. Either it changes to accommodate our desires or it gets jettisoned!”.

For me, this is why I think so many are trying to find way to validate what would otherwise been seen – according to post-religious secular norms – as ridiculous, by legitimizing and substantiating fasting for one month as something healthy. According to this new logic, to the extent that Islamic rituals can be confirmed by empirical/scientific observations, they may be tolerated. But to the extent to which they can’t (wearing hijab or growing a beard, for example), then they condemned as backwards and even potentially subhuman (hijab again).
One of the fundamental on the long differences is the pursuit of emotions versus the crafting with meaning. is the pursuit of emotions versus the crafting of meaning. The pursuit of emotion attempts to extract, for example, happiness, either from objects or activities like superfoods or yoga, alcohol or sex. But those who seek to craft meaning transcend objects and experience and see meaning in them; they see God. This should not be mistaken as a form of shamanism, in the Muslim sense, for Muslims do not believe God is inside their superfood smoothie or tantric sex, but rather see any such objects or activities as the result of God. The former tends to be rooted in an idolatrous materialism which places conditional value on things (things here being objects, activities/experiences). To the extent that an object, activity, or experience makes that individual happy it is deemed to be good regardless of what Revelation may have to say about it. Whereas the latter sees beyond this triumvirate and knows the source from which, for example, blueberry smoothies and alcohol, come from, thus allowing them to apply wisdom.

For other khutbahs and podcasts, see the Middle Ground Podcast.

Notes

1. Smith, Emily Esfahani. The Power of Meaning: Crafting A Life That Matters. Kindle ed., Crown, New York, 2017.