There are three Viennese schools of psychotherapy, and they all argue for the prominence of a different driving force in human nature. The first, formulated by Alfred Adler, posits that humans are driven by the will to power, that we are motivated by ambition, achievement and the need to strive and climb as high as we can. The second, formulated by Sigmund Freud, posits that we are driven by the pleasure principle, that we spend our life seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The third, formulated by Viktor Frankl, posits that it is meaning that matters above all else. That without a reason to live we enter the existential vacuum and encounter all the problems associated with being in such a place.
Personally, I lean towards the school of meaning. I think it is a more important thing to the average human than pleasure or power. Not to say that that the latter two are of no consequence. On the contrary, pleasure, power and meaning all combine together to form a philosophy with which we navigate our time on this spinning rock. But meaning itself is a tricky concept. What is “meaning”? In Roget’s Thesaurus, here are some of the words “meaning” is correlated with: essence, spirit, gist, matter, value, core. If something is full of “meaning” it has significance. It matters. But why would something matter? I suppose we could say that meaning is derived from an overarching purpose. But that itself raises another question: from where does purpose come? Ah. Here is where, I think, we get to the root of the matter. Consider the following pathway:
Humans are concerned with Meaning.
Meaning is derived from Purpose.
And Purpose arises from Story.
It is from a compelling story that we derive purpose and thus, meaning. For example:
Jill hands Jack a drink.
Jacks sips it, and dies.
The story is simple. A woman poisons a man. But from it, we can mine many purposes. Perhaps Jill was abused by Jack and sought revenge, or freedom. Or perhaps Jill is a young woman trying to rid herself of a boring but rich husband. Whatever purpose we choose to attribute to the poisoning of the drink, it’s meaning becomes apparent; it is the symbol of Jill’s triumph, the actualisation of her desire.
But this is just a simple story. Consider the consequences more complex stories have wrought upon the world. What of the world’s religions? What of the vast array of cultural myths and legends through time? What of conspiracy theories and propaganda? What of the media? All these stories that have come into being, persisted and dissolved have been like charities providing alms to the poor, except they’ve brought meaning and purpose to the lives of humans.
We endow our actions with meaning and we endure for a purpose, and we do both these things because we tell ourselves stories about the past, present and future. To differing degrees, we think ourselves actors in some great play and we try to play our role as best we can. That is how it must be. For there to be meaning and purpose, there has to be a compelling story. It can be true or it can be fictitious, it can be based on reality or built upon delusion, but exist it must. Because without a story, there is no meaning, and without meaning, we are ill equipped to navigate the trials and triumphs of our existence.