Many people suffer a lack of meaning in their lives, especially in the prosperous countries where the hardships of surviving on a day-by-day basis are not pressing. Decent incomes and the modern social safety net provide leisure time and security while removing the need for the incessant life-sustaining, highly significant activity demanded by dire necessity. For most people in the developed nations, only casual pastimes, meaningless entertainments, or sporadic volunteer work (which someone else could do) remain to fill the void. This situation is regarded as wonderful, yet in reality, it exposes the comfortably well-off to the serious risks of boredom and lack of purpose. It is no accident that suicide and depression rates are high in wealthy nations.
A perceived lack of meaning in life may indicate a desire for a more heroic and glorious way of living. (Image: public domain)
For two important reasons, I am going to write about how exceptional individuals wrestle with meaninglessness. While gifted persons may be no more aware of the nature of their plight than anyone else, they do have superior ways of expressing themselves. Unlike a more typical person, they often leave behind vivid presentations, in either words, deeds, or images, of what they have endured. In other words, while we all suffer in regrettable ignorance, gifted individuals sometimes manage to shine revealing light on the struggle.
One might expect gifted individuals to have an edge in life, but in actuality, life can be more, rather than less, difficult for many extraordinary people. By gifted, I mean anyone who is exceptionally creative, talented, ambitious, or intelligent. Unexpectedly, gifted or extraordinary persons may remain unaware of the full extent of their assets, or grossly underestimate their value. To make matters worse, gifts often come with qualities such as extreme sensitivity and cognitive instability (unconscious blending, or switching between, logical and associative thinking) that can make life unusually awkward or painful. Anyone who seems genuinely different may face open rejection by his or her peers. A lack of self-confidence and self-esteem may result. The exceptional person is also prone to chronic boredom and the dangers arising from deliberately stirring things up to make something interesting happen.
I have been reading my old notes about H. G. Wells lately, so I will use him as a starting point. As he became more successful, Wells wrote about the feeling there must be more to life than what appears at first glance, and like most writers, he explored his longings in his various works. A passage from one of his idea novels, The Research Magnificent, makes plain a growing disillusionment with life. Here is Well’s description of what Benham (one of his characters) yearns for:
Behind the dingy face of this world, the earthy stubbornness, the baseness and dullness of himself and all of us, lurked the living jewels of heaven, the light of glory, things unspeakable. At first it seemed to him one had only to hammer and will: and at the end, after a life of hammering and willing, he was still convinced there was something, something in the nature of an Open Sesame, perhaps a little more intricate than one had supposed at first, a little more difficult to secure, but still in that nature, which would suddenly roll open for mankind the magic cave of the universe, that precious cave at the heart of all things, in which one must believe.
And then Life – life and the wonder it just so perplexingly isn’t.
That last line says it all. In spite of our best efforts to make something of it, life can remain depressingly dull and tiresome. A surprising number of successful gifted people still feel “there must be more to life than this” demonstrating that a heightened sense of existential ennui can be an enduring flaw in being exceptional. The tedium drives many outstanding people to spend their lives searching for answers. Some never find them, of course. Many of these frustrated individuals become so lost or disillusioned they turn to an excess of drink, drugs, risk-taking, or sex as a way of dulling the desperate yearning for that elusive something extra.
My own experience with yearning for “something more” suggests an ill-defined lack of meaning definitely lies at the heart of the problem. Like Albert Einstein, most of us insist the universe make sense: “God does not play dice with the universe.” Like the Dalai Lama, we want our lives to have some purpose: “The important thing is that men should have a purpose in life. It should be something useful, something good.” Yet even cosmic coherence and personal purpose may inadequately answer the need for a meaningful existence.
What we have seen so far is the usual frame of reference for the feeling that “There must be more to life than this.” However, this may not be the best way to pose the problem. Beyond the taste for such things as a universe that makes sense and having a useful purpose in life, there is also the more basic issue of lifestyle. Perhaps the existential laments should also include, “There must be a more satisfying way of living.” If your way of life is not giving you what you truly need, the simple act of going through your daily routine can be a mind-numbing, soul-destroying ordeal. However, to cope with a problem, you must first understand what it is and how it affects you. This one is no different.
As children, gifted individuals face a disturbing dilemma. The sensitive person is keenly aware of societal norms. At some point in the life of a gifted child, he or she learns it is not good to be different. Our society stresses a simplistic kind of individuality, but only within prescribed limits. The current emphasis on egalitarianism is a new reason not to stand out. Being genuinely different, gifted children often face antipathetic neglect, unspoken disapproval, or hostile rejection. Such treatment can push a stronger individual into greater self-awareness prompting them to adopt romanticism’s anti-social stance and rebel against mainstream society. These young people may develop their talents early, or fall prey to bad influences and become delinquent, turning their abilities to destruction. The weaker individuals retreat in the face of parental and peer disfavour.
Here lies the heart of a surprisingly common problem. Having learned better than most how they are expected to behave, how they are supposed to live their lives, and often being exceptionally eager to please, gifted children may feel it is unwise to manifest their gifts. Often the talents are repressed so thoroughly they are lost from sight. Then, as adulthood nears, with their true identities buried and their gifts unused, the yearning begins.
Exceptional individuals long to express themselves in some way. Gifts have a way of wanting to get out into the world. The constant search for meaning outside of themselves is actually a reflection of the exceptional person’s superior inner coherence (at the unconscious level), a coherence that can create beautiful, or remarkable things if given a chance. The rites and ceremonies of organized religion, the traditional and direct approach to meaning, may satisfy the ambitiously pious, but can offer solace only to those willing to abandon their intellectual gifts, or to those capable of the incredible mental gymnastics and self-delusion needed to make dogmatic religion appear reasonable.
This need to express brings us to an interesting idea. If you find yourself powerfully longing for more from life, you may be repressing some inclination, talent, or ability repressed long ago in childhood or adolescence. Are you harbouring a neglected gift that your authentic self wills to make manifest? If so, what you need is a vocation of some kind, a calling, if you like. Most gifted people have one, but they do not always realize that they do. Finding your vocation later in life is what Jung meant when he spoke of the “broken sword.” An ability or ambition, long since broken (buried) and never used, must be restored before it can be wielded.
The sword metaphor is telling. “There must be more to life than this,” may have a lot to do with the old Norse ideals of heroism, glory, and renown. (While the Vikings are the most famous example, all societies once openly shared these ideals.)
I suggested earlier that what many discontented people (gifted or otherwise) really want, or unknowingly need, is an entirely different way of life from that of the ordinary man or woman. What they need is a lifestyle that offers some prospect of being heroic, of achieving some kind of high honour and wide repute. Soldiering and running away to sea (or to join the circus!) were once old favourites.
In religion and the arts, there are abundant examples of alternative lifestyles designed to achieve these ends. Consider the self-imposed isolation and heroically simple life of the piously ambitious religious hermit or anchorite. Think about the numerous attempts over the past century and a half to establish artists “colonies” where competitive painters strove for artistic glory. Remember how middle class English writers were once famous for living inexpensively in the country to further their publishing ambitions and thus garner the renown that comes with being a notable author. Indeed, the old idea of the “writer’s life” (travelling on a shoestring, living cheaply abroad, doing an assortment of unusual experience enhancing jobs) is largely predicated on the assumption that an adventurous lifestyle is required, one that will provide plenty of reputation-promoting tales to talk and write about.
Which lifestyle is suitable depends upon your vocation or calling. If you yearn for more from life, your first task is to discover your vocation, or true gift, and manifest it to the fullest extent possible. This must be done by looking inside yourself rather than outside. Discovering your true vocation means finding out who you really are, a difficult, painful, and lengthy process if a false self has been constructed to hide the fact that you are different. (What Christians perceptively refer to as hiding your light under a bushel.) You must become authentic. On top of all that, since manifesting your gift often requires a completely different way of life from the one you now live, you may face enormous problems with the people who only know you as your false self, and who will not be happy to see you behaving in “abnormal” ways.
So: are you yearning for a more meaningful life? If so, your innermost being, your Self, is calling you to account. Are you up to the challenge? If you choose to heed the call to glory keep in mind that success may not be necessary to gain the benefit of meaningfulness. For many, the striving itself becomes a fulfilling and satisfying way of life.
5 thoughts on “The Human Need for Heroism, Glory, and Renown”
Great article, Thomas. It would seem that the question posed in the last paragraph is the most difficult to answer. How are we to know if we are yearning, or are we merely whining?
Evan, I began thinking about the ideas in this post many years ago. In those early days, I wrestled with the question of disgruntlement versus lack of meaning and decided there is no definitive answer. Some people may have a genuine need for more meaning, or harbour actual gifts that need expression, but also have the kind of personality that enjoys whining and complaining. I have read enough biographies of writers and painters to know there are plenty of moaners among the various kinds or artists. Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse comes to mind. He made a long sincere journey of self-discovery, yet along the way neurotically whined about such things as noisy hotel guests, critics making money off of his books by including long quotes in theirs, and classical music ensembles utterly ruining a composer’s work by playing only one movement of a piece!
As my thinking became more sophisticated, I decided the best test for a genuine desire for meaning comes from two directions: action and mental illness. If the need for meaning runs deep, a time- and resource-consuming search begins. Where genuine gifts need expression, some fumbling efforts emerge as the bearer struggles to find an outlet. When a person is uncomfortable with who they really are, these activities are often carried out surreptitiously – but they are there. If repression has buried everything so deeply nothing is visible, then depression and anxiety disorders emerge.
Any healthy individual who goes on at length about a lack of meaning, yet does nothing, is probably a reasonably contented person who just enjoys the attention they get from grumbling.