BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

No cure for meaninglessness ...

This book came to me via the “Early Reviewer” program. As I've noted previously, it is a somewhat rare occasion that books from LTER are actually early, but this is one of those cases – as this is not due to be released until January 2017, four months hence. I must admit that it always makes me feel like “one of the cool kids” (often quite a stretch for a “bookish” person!) to get an ARC (advance review copy) of a yet-to-be-released title, but there are some challenges. First of all, it's “standard procedure” that one should not kvetch too much about internal issues with the book, since things are frequently still in flux and not quite how they're going to be when the book gets released into the wild (I've seen some that were missing all graphics, for instance), but I thought I'd mention one thing here – there are fairly extensive endnotes, but they're not connected to the location in the text as yet … which created a bit of a disjointed experience (I was reading them en masse after finishing each chapter) … the reader of the finished version is likely to have a much richer experience, as they'll be able to catch the background info as they work through the book (yeah, I'm bitching, but it's sort of to compliment the author for the level of citation).

I must admit, I had been very excited about Emily Esfahani Smith's The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters when I started into it, as she sets up the book with material on her family's Sufi ties. As long-time readers of this space know, I've read quite a lot of Sufi material over the years (probably over 50 titles by Idries Shah and related authors), so was enthused that this might have been in that tradition. While I'm sure that, to some extent, this is informed by the author's roots in that area, it's not emerging from it to any significant extent. Smith has a degree in psychology, and “writes about culture, relationships, and psychology” for such notable publications as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, and the tone (and to some extent, the focus) here is what you'd expect for something targeting those sorts of audiences.

The book's main chapters are “The Meaning Crisis”, “Belonging”, “Purpose”, “Storytelling”, “Transcendence”, “Growth”, and “Cultures of Meaning”, with the middle group of those being “the four pillars” of meaning (plus “Growth” tacked on, I suppose). The author's investigation of Meaning seems to have begun in the realms of psychology (and philosophy), but quickly branches out to look at how these elements operate in the lives of what she describes as remarkable individuals:
Some of their stories are ordinary. Others are extraordinary. But as I followed these seekers on their journeys, I found that their lives all had some important qualities in common, offering an insight that the research is now confirming: there are sources of meaning all around us, and by tapping into them, we can all lead richer and more satisfying lives – and help others do the same.
Much of the book is anchored by stories of these folks, and, frankly, while some are quite iconic for the points being made, most were just sort of “meh”, for me. Of course, I'm not much of a “story” aficionado, so I'm always trying to figure out what the point is when approached from those angles, and in a lot of cases here I was “getting” less than a “people person” (or fiction fan) might have.

In the areas where she's not talking about people, she's name-checking like crazy, and mashing together philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines to get to some destination. She uses an appearance of comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O'Brien show to tie together threads of Tolstoy, Camus, and Sartre … I don't know if she started there (it was unclear if the comic cited these writers) but she says he “described coming into contact with something like Sartre's nausea, Camus's absurd, and Tolstoy's horror” … which gives her a pivot to bounce around between the three, only to flip into The Little Prince. In the opening chapter, she is often introducing a different “character” (be that a famous writer or “a twelve-year-old boy with cancer”) every paragraph or so. Again, I'm a cynical curmudgeon, so I may be an outlier here, but I very quickly got to the “don't care!” zone through this.

In discussing some previous studies of meaning (a philosophers' book in the 30's, and Life magazine's research in the 60's) she gets to what frames her thesis:
… Yet there were some themes that emerged again and again. When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they describe connecting to and bonding with other people in positive ways. They discuss finding something worthwhile to do with their time. They mention creating narratives that bring order to life and help them understand themselves and the world. They talk about mystical experiences and self-loss.
      As I conducted my research for this book these four themes came up again and again in my conversations with people living meaningful lives and those still searching for meaning. These categories were also present in the definitions of a meaningful life … that meaning arises from our relationships to others, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self. …
The “Belonging” chapter starts with the story about a small island off the Virginia coast, where the locals have pretty much their own culture – certainly their own accent – and looks at one fellow who left there, but still visits frequently. This then shifts into a look at the changing theories of infant and child care, and how one researcher, René Spitz, shifted things from a non-contact model to one that emphasized a lot of physical interaction (much of the casework being done in orphanages). From here she moves to looking at loneliness, and there's some interesting figures here:
… About 20 percent of people consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives” and one third of Americans 45 and older say they are lonely. In 1985, when the General Social Survey asked Americans how many people they'd discussed important matters with over the last six months, the most common response was three. When the survey was given again in 2004, the most common response was zero.
It's not a big jump to examining suicide from there, and she quotes numerous studies that indicated “people are more likely to kill themselves when they were alienated from their communities”, and the odd factoid that “wealthy countries have higher suicide rates than poor ones, and that their inhabitants are less likely to consider their lives meaningful”. This eventually meanders into a longish tale about the Society for Creative Anachronism (think “ren faire” if you're not familiar with the SCA), and various dynamics in it, including dealing with a suicidally depressed member. Of all the stories in the book, the one that struck me the most was that of a guy who buys a newspaper from the same vendor every morning in New York, and they always had a bit of a conversation, which eventually builds into a connection. One day, the guy only had big bills, but the vendor didn't have change – and he said to pay for it the next day – but the guy insisted he should pay, went into a store, bought something just to get change, and paid the vendor. This chilled their relationship, as the guy rejected the kindness, and pulled the exchange down to a simple transaction. This leads into the author discussing other studies of rejection, and how some people devalue others' work (doctors and hospital cleaners).

The second “pillar” is Purpose. This starts out with a story about a zookeeper in Detroit, moves to a story of a drug dealer in New York (who turns his life around in prison, and now runs a fitness company based on his jailhouse workouts), and into the story of an Indian photographer doing a series of major works based on the Hindu deities, which then veers into a look at the movie Good Will Hunting, which is part of a riff on Kant:
      Though living with purpose may make us happier and more determined, a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with these personal benefits but with making the world a better place. … That idea was expressed forcefully by the eighteenth-century German thinker Immanuel Kant. … To Kant, the question is not what makes you happy. The question is how to do your duty, how to best contribute ...
This leads into a look at current research at places like the Yale School of Management and Wharton: “Adam Grant, a Wharton School of Business professor … points out that those who consistently rate their jobs as meaningful have something in common: they see their jobs as a way to help others.”

Next comes “Storytelling”. This starts with a horrific tale of a teenage girl getting hit by a car, and having severe neurological damage … the payoff on the story is the whole trauma center staff coming in to introduce themselves to the girl … for their benefit because only about 1 in 10 with these sorts of injuries survive, and having the example “keeps them coming back to work”. One thing I actually dropped a bookmark on here was part of a story-telling event/site called The Moth, and this comment from their Artistic Director is pretty sharp:
The most moving stories … are rooted in vulnerability, but they are not too emotionally raw. The stories should come … “from scars and not wounds.” They should have settled into the storyteller's mind so that he or she can reflect back on the experience and pull out its meaning.
Smith goes on to define this “pillar” a bit more coherently than the others with:
      Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn't function otherwise. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do.
She goes on to talk about a semi-pro football player who breaks his spine, how college fund-raisers who used personal stories raised more money, the life of a Cuban refugee, and ends up discussing the book/movie Life of Pi (which should have come with a “spoiler warning”).

The final “pillar” is “Transcendence” and, interestingly, she starts this off with a story of a visit to the McDonald Observatory in Texas, which moves into a lot of scientific space info, and then into ancient beliefs about the cosmos. This was pretty good at describing where she was going here:
You might expect the insignificance we feel in the face of this knowledge to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of our lives. But it in fact does the opposite. The abject humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. A brush with mystery – whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in a hospital delivery room – can transform us.
She goes off into the work of William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) who was a great fan of nitrous oxide to “stimulate the mystical consciousness” (maaaaan ...), and offers up his four qualities of this, being passive, transient, ineffable, and noetic (imparting knowledge or wisdom). She digs up an “expert on transcendence” from the University of Pennsylvania (I assume there have to be some out there … although I doubt he's on the Wharton faculty), and tracks down some researchers doing actual empirical studies into stuff like “awe”. This leads into story of some guy who decided that he really wasn't interested in finance, and ran off to a monastery in Burma, where the author details, over several pages, the predictable whining of the Western seeker who is disappointed to find that traditional spiritual training centers don't sport the comforts of a Four Seasons hotel. He nevertheless sticks to it and eventually gets to a point where he claims he's “seen so clearly what an illusion the self is”. She bounces off this story into an interesting (but brief) look at some researchers investigating what's happening in the brains of meditators via SPECT (single photon emission compound tomography), which I've seen covered in other books previously.

This next goes into a story of Jeff Ashby, who was inspired at age 6 by one of the early NASA manned flights, and who eventually made it into space at age 45. The thrust here (heh) is on how, once his life-long dream had been achieved, he looked for “bigger issues” … which then flips back into a look at John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, and how he got into Transcendentalism via the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This then leads off to a review of assorted “transcendent” experiences, including those generated by hallucinogens (with mention of some research studies), and a story about a cancer patient using these to smooth the transition out of this life.

The “Growth” chapter isn't one of the “pillars” that Smith lists, but gets about as many pages devoted to it. This starts with a rambling story of some of the people involved in a group called “The Dinner Party”, which is set up for young adults who have lost close loved ones. This is all pretty predictable but for the quote from one of them: “That's what nihilism is for”, which, of course, appealed to my sensibilities. This then rolls into a story of a Vet suffering from PTSD who ended up killing somebody in a drunk-driving episode, and, in dealing with this, forms a group called Dryhooch to provide places where vets can hang out together without booze. This leads to tales of other folks who have survived traumatic experiences and “grown” from them … including some research on how there's quite a range of how resilient individuals can be, which may have a substantial genetic component.

The penultimate chapter is “Culture of Meaning”, which starts with the story of a church in Seattle that does a late-night service involving chanting a 4th-century ritual, which has been a counter-culture fave for decades. The author quotes dozens of attendees' passionate comments about the program, but doesn't offer much concrete about it (no researchers had wires stuck in the audience, evidently). Smith uses this chapter to try to support her “four pillars” model, and runs through a bunch of different groups, organizations, companies, etc. that are “cultures of meaning” and tries to map them onto her framework. Frankly, I thought the connection was pretty weak across the board here, but if you're the type that gets entranced by the sort of stories that make up much of the book, you may be sufficiently enthused at this point that you'll be totally on board with whatever Smith's pitching. Me, not so much.

However, the book somewhat redeems itself in the “Conclusion”, which – while brief – takes a fascinating look at death and suicide. It starts with a rather arch quote: “Death … poses a grave challenge to the ability lead a meaningful life.”, and the search for “a meaning that cannot be annulled by death.” The core story here focuses on researcher William Brietbart (with Sloan Kettering) … who discusses working with the AIDS community, considers the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and the movement for legalization of assisted suicide. He found that:
those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. They were living in an “existential vacuum”.
… Brietbart knew he could treat depression … but he was stumped when it came to treating meaninglessness.
Unfortunately, what he ended up developing (a multi-session group therapy approach) was specifically targeted to the terminal cancer patients with whom he worked, and not a generally applicable approach for the rest of us. The book (somewhat predictably) ends with a meander through the story of Viktor Frankl, before coming up with the “big reveal”:
Love, of course, is at the center of the meaningful life. Love cuts through each of the pillars of meaning and comes up again and again in the stories of those I have written about.
I wonder if the author has an appreciation of how empty and pointless that sounds to somebody struggling with suicidal depression. Needless to say, that's a throw-the-book-across-the-room mic drop ending (especially following the rest of that chapter).

Obviously, The Power of Meaning was not “my sort of book” … I don't care for “teaching stories” in general, and all these tales of people in various situations were frequently just blah-blah-blah to me. But, that's me, and I realize that a lot of people live for this stuff. If you like to read about “remarkable individuals” (and not in the 4th Way sense), you'll no doubt like this far more than I did. Again, I had high hopes for this when it started, and if it had concentrated more on the research, psychology, and philosophy (& Sufi thought), and not on these folks that the reader is supposed to have an empathetic reaction to (I always feel like I'm being “played” when authors try to get me to feel instead of think), I would have likely been raving about it by this point. But no.

As noted up top, this is not coming out until January, so you've got a few months to wait if you're wanting to pick up a copy. You can, of course, pre-order from the on-line big boys (who have it at a bit over a third off of cover price), so you'll have it as soon as it ships. I just wish I could have been more enthusiastic about this.

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Tags: book review
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