When you are living through an age, it is very difficult to see the currents with which the age will be identified. Few people living in the Jazz Age would have guessed they were living in the Jazz Age. In this age, society is whipsawed by one trend after another, so it seems impossible to know which one will be remembered. Maybe this is the geriatric age where aging Baby Boomers ruled the day. Perhaps the democratic age, where mob rule plunged the West into darkness and chaos.
One option may be the age of meaning. This is the time when people are always searching about for meaning and purpose in their lives. They turn the trivial into all-important moments, so they can pretend to be in a struggle. They invent victims of imaginary oppression so they can play the white knight. Every crisis, it turned into a crusade that quickly takes on the trappings of religion. Ours is an age where everyone is on a vision quest and they force the rest of us to play along.
For example, lost in all of the handwringing about Afghanistan is how some became emotionally attached to a place they ignored for two decades. Suddenly, getting our “allies” out was a holy mission. They spent all day on-line playing “digital Dunkirk” as if they were really doing something heroic. All of a sudden, the media was full of stories from people who claimed to working to get their friends out of the country. Of course, those friends were always heroic Afghans, not Americans.
This quest for meaning was not limited to LARP’ing on-line. Two congressmen flew over there against the wishes of the government in order to play hero. They were not satisfied with making noises about it on the House floor. They had to be in the middle of the action. Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma decided to play Rambo and went over to personally rescue people. These pointless and foolish acts are driven by a need to be seen as men with a purpose beyond the role they play.
Of course, for close to two years we have been hit by a tsunami of this from women claiming they are in the “front lines” of Covid. Just look at the language. They imagine they are in real trenches fighting real monsters. When it started, every nurse and doctor went on-line every day to tell us how exhausted they were, as if they were rescuers working day and night to save people from a collapsed building. Many got swept up in their fantasies on-line for the same reason.
The main reason the Covid panic is not old news is the people swept up in the cause cannot let go of it. For many, this was the first time in their life they woke up in the morning with a sense of purpose. There are nefarious reasons behind the government response, but it is aided and abetted by the quest for meaning. There are many more people who want to believe the stories are true than those who are offended by the assault on their liberty by the state in response to the problem.
The best way to see this quest for meaning is in things that are not driven by a sense of crisis, but by history. Here is the ridiculous governor of Virginia inserting himself and his co-religionists into the history books. They get to feel like heroes for righting a past wrong, that was probably not wrong. The facts are not important. They need to be part of the long gone struggle. Since the line for the Emmett Till ride is way too long, they picked a different event to exercise their quest for meaning.
This is one reason events like the civil right movement are talked about as if they happened yesterday. Part of it is nostalgia, for sure, but a big part of it is a secondhand nostalgia by people who have no direct connection to the events. Instead, they seek to fill the need for meaning and purpose in their present lives with fantasies about having experienced emotionally important events of the shared past. This allows them to feel like they are part of the struggle from the safety of home.
Bourgeoise restlessness is not a new thing. This desire to do something important seems to be the result of leisure. Young men from good homes have gone off to seek adventure since there have been young men from good homes. We live in an age in which large swaths of the population are idle. Poverty is no longer a threat, as even the poor have more than they need. In one respect, the quest for meaning in a post-scarcity phenomenon driven by an excess of middle-class people.
Another driver though is the devastation wrought by liberal democracy. Social capital in the form of family and community has been used to fire the great engines of the technological state. The transactional replacements, on-line community, social media groups and mass media, are a poor substitute. Like emergency meal replacements, manufactured community can keep you going for a while, but it is a constant reminder of the loss of the real thing, as well as a poor substitute.
At the end of the Time Machine, the protagonists realizes that the future he witnessed was not the failure of man, but the result of his success. “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.” Once those challenges were conquered, there was no need for the sort of men who rush to the sound of danger. Over time those types faded away and were replaced with the type who easily lived a carefree life as food.
We are learning a similar lesson. Like all living things, humans are wired to do what is necessary to reach sexual maturity. What has always made man unique is the desire to live beyond that point. To look into the heavens for purpose and then manifest that purpose on earth for the benefit and admiration of our people. The dream may be small or grandiose, but it is the dream that gives meaning to life. We are not meant to live in adult daycare centers, marking our days consuming the latest products.
Perhaps the tech overlords will make the virtual quest for meaning good enough to keep the species going for a while longer. We will plug into the machine and have our dreams made true by an algorithm. Maybe we simply make ourselves insane in the increasingly chaotic quest for meaning. Whatever happens, there is a good chance that people look back at this age and know that we were spoiled for choice in the material realm but starved for choice in the spiritual realm.
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