A Common Mistake in our Search for Meaning

Meaninglessness does not come from too much pain in life. It comes from finding too much pleasure in meaningless things. We are prone to get things backward. We attribute fulfillment with achievement. We perceive meaning in accomplishment. We look at the person with the accolades and convince ourselves that they have won! We tell ourselves the lie that if only we could achieve the same success, then we would be happy. If we could win like them, then we would be content.

Life continues to feel meaningless. We lack fulfillment. This is not a new problem:

"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
     vanity of vanities! All is vanity
What does man gain by all the toil
     at which he toils under the sun? (Eccl 1:2-3)."

"I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.' But behold, this also was vanity (Eccl 2:1)."

It does not matter the arena of life, if you attribute fulfillment with achievement, you will remain unfulfilled. If you equate meaning with pleasure in meaningless things, you will find yourself always searching for more. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

An example

There are countless examples of men and women who have reached the pinnacle of worldly success in their respective arena and found themselves feeling like there must be more. One notable example is Tom Brady. After winning his third super bowl and only the age of 30, he did an interview with 60 minutes. In a moment of intense transparency, as he reflected on his own life, he said, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and... and still think there is something greater out there for me? ... There has got to be more than this..."

Since that interview, Brady has added two Super Bowl rings and is widely considered the greatest QB to ever play in the NFL. But I don't think his answer would change. There has got to be more than this...

Brady's comments are not unique. We could find countless stories from other domains of life. Business leaders who make millions and are not satisfied, politicians who reach the highest levels and discover they are not fulfilled. People throughout all generations in all professions among all cultures have discovered this same truth. It is not a new revelation. With the preacher in Ecclesiastes we repeat the refrain, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

C.S. Lewis

What article about meaning and pleasure is complete without a quote from the old sage:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

and another from Lewis:

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

We are looking in the wrong places

We are all pleasure seekers, we are just prone to look in the wrong places. Pleasure is not the problem. Our problem is not that we seek too much pleasure, but that we seek it in the wrong places. We are far too easily pleased. Meaninglessness does not come from too much pain, it comes from seeking too much pleasure in meaningless things.

Our Scriptures argue that trials are not antithetical to meaning, but can actually bring meaning. We can be made complete through the steadfastness that trials produce:

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4)."

Meaning is found in none other than God himself. Whether we are walking through the valley of trial or soaring on the mountaintop of success, we are only ever made complete through Jesus. When we see the world through the lens of the gospel, when we see our meaning through what Jesus has done and is doing to transform us, only then do we find the joy of contentment. Only then does meaning come.