Viktor Frankl survived the concentration camp at Dachau. The Nazis separated him from his wife, Tilly, sending her to Auschwitz, where she later died. Viktor’s mother Elsa also died at Auschwitz, in the gas chambers, as did his brother Walter, while working in a mining operation there. Of his immediate family, only he and his sister Stella survived. She had fled for Australia.
In a period of nine days, Frankl wrote a book about his experience in the camps, eventually published in an English translation titled Man’s Search for Meaning. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Frankl’s book emphasized how, with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, prisoners could find the resilience to endure their circumstances, and even find meaning in their suffering. Before his imprisonment, Frankl had worked as a therapist in Vienna, gathering a reputation as a world-class psychiatrist. After years of slave labor, Frankl worked again as a therapist in the camps. He wrote of two suicidal inmates and how he managed to help them. “In both cases,” he wrote, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”
Frankl’s book sold millions of copies worldwide. It sparked a new interest in the importance of a sense of meaning and purpose in life as a key part of psychological health. We now know that people who have such a sense of meaning and purpose live longer (Steptoe, et. al, 2014). We have confirmed the perception that poorer people tend to find greater meaning in life, at least when we compare countries. Nearly everyone in Sierra Leone, Togo, Kyrgyzstan, Chad, and Ethiopia said that they felt their lives had purpose and meaning, while only two-thirds of people from Japan, France, and Spain did (Oisi & Diener, 2014). In the United States, 40% of adults said that they don’t have a clear sense of purpose in their lives, or had no strong feeling about the question either way (Kobau, 2010).
Jane McGonigal suggested that the appeal of massively multiplayer roleplaying games like World of Warcraft lies, first and foremost, in the sense of meaning and purpose they offer (2010). From the very start, the other characters in online games trust our characters with important missions that we (and we alone) can accomplish, and show a willingness and even an eagerness to help us on our quest. Video games, television, and movies may all appeal to this same deep, unfulfilled need for meaning and purpose, even when we can only fulfill it vicariously, or only in a fictional world.
In their survey comparing the sense of meaning in rich and poor countries, Shigehiro Oisi and Ed Diener found that religion stood out as the strongest correlation. Controlling for all other factors, people from more religious countries still responded much more positively when asked about their sense of meaning and purpose (Oisi & Diener, 2014). In the West, we perceive of religion as innately bound up in beliefs about the supernatural, but this comes from the particular history of Western philosophy and religion. Most oral peoples, influenced by the additive, aggregative, and empathetic nature of orality itself (Ong, 1982), do not divide the world into natural and supernatural spheres, as literate cultures tended to after the invention of writing. Religion in this context means building a relationship with the sacred — or, perhaps more to the point, those aspects of life that give it meaning and purpose. As Sylvie Poirier characterized the Australian Aboriginal sense of self and personhood:
“The Aboriginal person is not thought to be ‘individual,’ that is an indivisible and bounded unity, but is seen rather as a composite of intrinsic and reciprocal relationships among people, places, and ancestors; the person, human and non-human, in short, is a node within a nexus of relationships. These relationships are intrinsic rather than extrinsic and account for the dividual and divisible quality of the person.” (2005)
With this concept of religion in mind, it seems significant to note that even with its emphasis on belief in a specific supernatural order, religious Christians often characterize their faith as fundamentally concerned with a singular personal relationship. It also seems significant to note another factor that Shigehiro Oisi and Ed Diener found correlated with a sense of meaning: a country’s fertility rate. With more children, people in countries with higher fertility rates tended to have larger families, and that in turn often meant that they had a larger number of personal relationships.
Echoing Poirier’s description of dividuality among Australian Aborigines, two Haudenosaunee authors, Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen “He Clears the Sky” Dan Longboat, write provocatively about minds “colonized” by the conceit that imagination dwells within them, rather than existing as part of a relationship that we can partake in.
“For the Haudenosaunee, the natural and spiritual are twin shores of the same unquestionable reality, and imagination was not necessary when accounting for wondrous reality because that spiritual experience could be explained by ancient memories and the regenerative and psychoactive powers of traditional landscapes. You see, spiritual ecology enacts its legitimate processes not to engulf but to remind and in reminding, necessitates the learning of the way to the beginning when all things spoke the same tongue. Knowing that the beginning is still here means knowing it has never left. Those who have not lost their beginnings know the refuge, safety, and sanity of returning to forever. Of forever returning. And of returning forever.” (Sheridan & Longboat, 2006)
In Australia, interconnected Dreaming stories link every major hill, watering hole, or other geographic feature of the continent in a vast epic. Individual Aborigines have bonds to specific places that connect them to specific stories and ancestors. With that bond comes rights, like the right to know the secrets of a place, or to tell its story, or to sing its song, as well as obligations to do so. Aboriginal people do not simply live on the land; they each carry a unique set of knowledge and rights, and the responsibility to use that knowledge and those rights to keep those places alive. As Poirier observed, an Aboriginal band does not simply live in a place together; they exist as a shifting alliance of custodians brimming with powers, knowledge, and responsibilities, tasked with keeping the land alive (Poirier, 2005).
“Every individual in every society starts life as a spontaneous animist inhabiting a meaningful world composed of sentient agencies,” writes Bruce Charlton (2002). He sees a sense of meaning and purpose as the natural consequence of humanity’s innate animism. We must train ourselves to see objects where before we saw subjects. As David Abram describes it:
“Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter — of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor — as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. … By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies.” (1997)
Charlton contends that by thus cutting ourselves off from our own senses and our animist experience, we create the crisis of alienation that afflicts WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies. “A modern spiritual quest for meaning,” he suggests, “should perhaps be concerned mainly with attaining those conditions which enable the re-emergence of our natural predisposition for animistic modes of thinking, and for learning the cues and constraints governing such experiences.“ (2002)
With no one to tell them that their “spontaneous animism” doesn’t really exist, animists approach the world around them as a place filled with other-than-human persons, and find that it responds in kind. David Abram relates an example of this from his time in Bali, when his hostess left out a bowl of rice for “the spirits.” Later, he found the bowl empty. Curious, he later kept watch, and saw the rice from another offering start to move, as a small army of black ants began the task of carrying the rice away. At first amused, upon further reflection, Abram realized that in this place, those ants could overwhelm the family’s compound in short order. “The daily gifts of rice kept the ant colonies occupied — and, presumably, satisfied,” Abram wrote. “Placed in regular, repeated locations at the corners of various structures around the compound, the offerings seemed to establish certain boundaries between the human and ant communities; by honoring this boundary with gifts, the humans apparently hoped to persuade the insects to respect the boundary and not enter the buildings.” (1997)
Abram explained that the English word “spirit” suffers from a long history of projection and misunderstanding. “Many of the earliest Western students of these other languages and customs were Christian missionaries,” he writes, “all too ready to see occult ghosts and immaterial spirits where the tribespeople were simply offering their respect to the local winds.” (1997) In Bali, Abram’s hosts treated with the ants as other-than-human persons. They gave gifts, set boundaries, and expected the ants to respond to that appropriately as persons, which they did. Our own words — like “spirit,” from the Latin spirare, meaning “to breathe,” or “animism,” “animate,” or “animal,” all from the Proto-Indo-European root ane-, which likewise means “to breathe” — reflect this history, starting with a real, felt engagement with the physical world, only later slipping into intangibility and the supernatural.
In recent years, a number of scholars like Nurit Bird-David, Tim Ingold, Philippe Descola, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Morten Pedersen, Aparecida Vilaça, Carlos Fausto, and Rane Willerslev have taken up the task of “taking animism seriously,” helping to bridge the gap of Western projection and misunderstanding to help explain animism’s focus on relationships rather than the supernatural. Animism certainly brings with it a sense of the sacred, but that sacredness arises from engagement with the real world. Our spontaneous, animist experience of the world gave rise to the first religion, the only religion that humanity has ever shared universally, and the root from which religious experience still draws its sustaining power. Religion helps provide a sense of meaning and purpose because it gives us relationships with people who expect something from us — whether gods, ancestors, or ecological communities that have sustained us and expect us to repay that debt in turn. You can place belief in the supernatural on top of animism (or not), but underneath that, our spontaneous human animism remains the primal religion: our ability to use empathy to bridge the gap between persons, and thus to enter into relationships with other humans and even other-than-human persons. By denying our essential human animism, we limit the universe of persons that we can relate to. Alienation follows.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life,” Viktor Frankl wrote, “everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” In WEIRD societies, people struggle to find such a vocation or mission throughout their lives. Many fail in that struggle. Such a sense of meaning seems to come as part and parcel of the oral, animistic world that humans spontaneously inhabit. Indigenous people all over the world tell us that they exist to continue the work of their ancestors, to keep beauty alive in the face of entropy, to sustain a special place connected to them by kinship or sacred bond, or any of a hundred other special missions or purposes that they and they alone can fulfill, like the hero in a video game. Every human being naturally yearns for that kind of meaning and purpose, and intuitively understands that she lacks something vitally important when she does not have it. Such a sense of meaning and purpose comes to us naturally, though we can lose it when we alienate ourselves from the more-than-human world that shaped us.