Need for Meaning of our Symbolic Self

“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

image from pixabay

When you land on my blog’s first page you can read a description about how was born and what are my fundamental ideas underlying its content. The very first thing you read there is the following:

“We humans are cultural animals. Animals – based on our biological nature. Cultural – based on our symbolic nature.”

It continues with the description of our dual nature that can be characterised by two respective “selves” – a biological and a symbolic one, each with its own needs. 

In this article, I go into detail about what I mean by our symbolic nature and, based on that, what is it that our symbolic self needs. This article, therefore, is a metaphorical bedrock of my blog. It elaborates on the core underlying assumption that serves as a foundation not only for the majority of the content here on humanfactor but also for my current worldview and values. And it is this: for humans, a sense of meaning is not just a wish or a luxury but one of our crucial needs and most of our lives can be seen in light of our search for/ creation of meaning in order to satisfy that need. 

To begin with the beginning, I would first like to mention the source of my basic assumption. More accurately, it is a collection of sources. Like most complex things in life, also this insight did not develop momentarily and due to one cause only. Most likely several elements were assembling themselves and leading up to the current framework. It is far from being a full picture, but the playing field has revealed itself. I have managed to identify the latest three sources that were key in bringing about my personal Aha moment. They are the following books that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the human condition (listed in the chronological order of my reading):

  1. Carl Gustav Jung “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”, which is a collection of 11 essays of C.G. Jung, translated into English and first published in 1933 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  2. Ernest Becker “The Denial of Death”, first Free Press Paperbacks edition 1997 (originally published in 1973 and received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974 shortly after the author’s death)
  3. Viktor E. Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Beacon press 2006 edition (originally published in German in 1946)

Now that we have established the sources, let’s dive right in. I mentioned earlier the duality of our nature as characterized by two respective “selves” – a biological and a symbolic one. Where does this come from? In his book (No 2 on my list above), Becker refers to it as “the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality.” To put it differently, I am a human animal, mortal in my body as all other fellow animals, and at the same time, I am the only animal (it seems) who is aware of the fact that I will, one day, die. I become aware of it sometime during my development as a human and that’s it, I cannot un-know it. This realisation is with me, easily retrievable even though I am not at the peril of dying right now, nor do I know its exact timing and circumstances in the future. This ‘part’ of me that is conscious of my inevitable mortality is as inseparable from ‘me’ as my body, the whole physical organism being the ‘place of origin’ of my mortality. It is here that our human condition gets endowed with its “real dilemma of existence” between the biological and the symbolic selves. In Becker’s words:

“The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where ‘he’ really ‘is’ – in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body.” which leads to “man’s confusion over the meaning of his life, a meaning split hopelessly into two realms – symbols (freedom) and body (fate).”

Becker (No 2 on my list above)

At this point, it becomes clear why I differentiate between the two selves – the biological and the symbolic one. It is a way of illustrating our human condition and its characteristic existential dilemma. However, why the word ‘symbolic’? The association between our mortal body and its title ‘biological self’ is clear enough but how might we refer to that other ‘part’, the one being aware of our eventual mortality? Since we are stepping here into the world of abstract thoughts and ideas where we are able to self-reflect and consciously imagine something that is not there (yet), I think the word ‘symbolic’ is an apt designation for this realm. For those who are curious (I am) – according to the Oxford Dictionary of English app, the word symbol comes from Greek sumbolon meaning a mark, token. So, it is something that stands for something else and carries its meaning, usually something difficult to describe, like a concept. It is, therefore, a helpful title now that we have come to the next stage of our investigation – the nature of the symbolic self or, in other words, what does the symbolic self stand for.

It seems to me that sometimes one of the most effective ways to express something is by employing contrast. At least at the beginning, to get a general feeling of the idea. Although at other times, I admit, this method can be very irritating (how was your day? not bad. okay… but how was it?). This time I will start with a contrast though. What is the symbolic nature? Well, it is not the biological nature (otherwise there wouldn’t be any “real dilemma of existence”, would there?). 

Our biological nature and its representative biological self is rooted in the body. In a somewhat straightforward sense, it is our body, our physiology, anatomy, all that we inherit through genes of our parents, more distant ancestors, Homo Sapiens species (sometimes even with a small ‘extra’ of the Neanderthal genes). It is that part of our human selves that holds us firmly within the animal kingdom. In other words – it is a given that we do not choose, cannot change and that will die (although, admittedly, our scientific endeavours are tirelessly striving to correct this nuisance). It is in this sense, I think, that Becker refers to our body in the above quote as a sort of spokesperson for our fate. So, when someone says that they are not bound by any fate or destiny, that they are free to be whatever they want to be I often think to myself – well, yes, maybe, just as long as you remain a Homo Sapiens (this is a restriction that we try to ‘overcome’ and may one day succeed but that will be a story of an entirely different species). 

Where does this body/fate description leave us with respect to our other ‘part’ – the symbolic one? Now that we already have a rough impression of what it might be, as opposed to our biological nature, I would like to begin a more elaborate illustration of the symbolic self with the help of … a symbol – our symbolic nature and its representative symbolic self is rooted in our Promethean fire. I am sure that most of us know about this ancient Greek mythical character and his great crime – stealing fire (as well as some other valuable knowledge) from the gods and bringing it to the humans. Although a fascinating topic in itself, here I would like to focus on what it stands for in our discussed context. 

There are various attempted definitions of what I am here referring to as our symbolic nature represented by the Promethean fire – consciousness, civilization, science, knowledge, abstract thinking, creativity and many others. One thing is, therefore, clear – there is no single perfectly fitting expression. However, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to find it and so, here is my suggestion – creative awareness. Definitely awareness because, as discussed earlier, our human condition involves being aware of our (and our loved ones) inevitable mortality. But not just awareness because our human condition also involves a sort of response reaction to this profound awareness – we want to do something with our lives, we want to figure them out, we want to create something worth all the existential dilemma trouble. 

Here, crucially, comes the association with freedom (see Becker’s quote above). Why? Because unlike our biological nature, that what we can, at least potentially, create during our allotted time is not given. Life places its limitations, no doubt about it. Besides our biological inheritance, we all have different environments and circumstances, especially during our childhood, none of which we chose ourselves. Still, if nothing else, we humans want to feel that our lives have not been wasted (a truly symbolic phrase). How exactly we go about attaining that feeling is not given and it is an individual journey of every one of us into the realm of meaningfulness (freedom) governed by our symbolic selves. 

Before turning to the last part of our investigation, namely, addressing the very real needs of our symbolic selves, I would like to finish this section with a quote from Jung’s work:

“And it is only the meaningful that sets us free.” Free from what? From “a state of mental suffering, and it is spiritual stagnation, psychic sterility, which causes this state.” 

Jung (No 1 on my list above)

This leads us to the last point and the main theme captured in the title of this article – the need for meaning as felt by our symbolic selves. In the above quote from Jung, the word spirituality is used. Some, depending on our early circumstances and environments (part of the given), still feel uneasy with this word. In this context, however, Jung does not refer to any specific practice of spirituality (the great variety of possible practices being part of the freedom). Spirituality is a broad and complex term and here it is meant to encompass that which gives you an inner sense of purpose and meaning. Since it is only the meaningful that can set us free (creating meaning for our human condition characterized by our existential dilemma) and it is in the realm of and through our symbolic selves (creative awareness) that we can experience this freedom, I consider it to be one of our core needs – the need for meaning – in this sense being nonreducible to anything else. It is once again helpful to draw a comparison to our biological self and its needs resulting from its nature.

Since at the heart of biological self’s nature is the mortal body, one of its core needs is to keep itself alive. This is in my view an irreducible need of our biological self. In this realm of the given, our needs manifest through instinctual drives (like seeking food when hungry), species-specific traits (like humans being social animals) as well as individual predispositions (like a person’s unique genetic makeup). Let us compare this to our symbolic self.

Since at the heart of symbolic self’s nature is creative awareness, one of its core needs is to create meaning. It is here that we are aware of our and others’ mortality and it is in this realm of our creative freedom that we strive for meaning as means of dealing with the existential dilemma caused by our mortality-awareness. In other words, by filling our lives with meaning (freedom) we manage to come to terms with our mortality (the given). To make it worth all the trouble because let’s be honest, life is not only roses and candy. Frankl, a psychotherapist who created his theory of man’s will to meaning and practised it with his clients after having survived and returned from several Nazi concentration camps, gives a vivid example of what he terms “existential vacuum”, a sense of void within oneself caused by the feeling of meaninglessness:

“/…/ for instance, “Sunday neurosis”, that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” Another example he gives: “Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.”

Frankl (No 3 on my list above)

So, it seems, we do have a need for meaning in our lives that cannot be reduced to a particular biological drive or instinct. Primarily because this need results from our symbolic nature and not our biological one. Although, of course, such division is more for clarity purposes and should not be perceived literally. However, despite not being a biologically-determined factor, our symbolic self’s need for meaning is a shared characteristic of all Homo Sapiens representatives. It is, therefore, for a reason that I chose to call our symbolic nature so poetically – Promethean fire. One of the more widespread associations with this mythical character – our civilizations, cultures – can be seen as collective manifestations of our need for meaning by our symbolic selves. Becker puts it in the following way: 

“Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”

Becker (No 2 on my list above)

It follows that in order to deal with our human condition’s existential dilemma, our symbolic self needs some kind of ‘quest’ (an avenue of creative awareness outlet) where it can play the role of the symbolic ‘hero’ fulfilling this quest and thereby creating meaning for our lives. Moreover, to be worthwhile the quest needs to be bigger than just the individual concerned, it has to go beyond the strictly personal. Note that such quests and their heroic fulfilment must not necessarily have going-to-the-Moon or saving-the-world magnitude. It may be as simple as lovingly caring for one’s family, consciously sorting one’s waste or paying attention to what and how much one consumes. The avenues and their magnitudes vary, yes, but the basic idea stays the same. Contributing to something beyond just myself (the ‘quest’), identifying with that bigger ‘quest’ and creating meaning for my life by fulfilling it.

We, humans, are mortal animals who are creatively aware of this fact. It generates an inner tension, an existential dilemma that begs to be solved. On one side, we have our biological selves with all their needs in the realm of the given. On the other side, we have our symbolic selves that enable us to experience the existential confusion and also to creatively deal with it. By creating meaning. This is the realm of our freedom, of our Promethean fire. With creativity it is similar as with fire – it can burn you and it can warm you. Freedom is not easy to handle but in its absence we cannot create meaning which we need. As Frankl concluded, grounded in his own tough experiences, only a freely chosen ‘quest’ can answer our need for meaning:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

Frankl (No 3 on my list above)

keep exploring!

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