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To Remain Free, Make the Ordinary Meaningful

A hospital cleaner begins the task of mopping a hallway.

In these increasingly illiberal times, many wonder how to preserve freedom. The prospects for liberty seem bleak. Most people will never read the great classical liberal thinkers. They know little about the conditions that enable humans to flourish. Schools and colleges don’t promote classical liberal principles. And many people eagerly adopt secondhand opinions from the media and other sources. Yet, there is cause for optimism.

After a recent visit to the dentist, my wife and I talked about the role ordinary people play in preserving freedom. The concern our dentist and her staff have for patients is palpable. They build their skills with continuing education, keeping up with the latest advances in dentistry, such as the non-invasive use of ozone to kill bacteria, thereby reducing the need for periodontal treatments. They work hard all day, making meaning in their lives. When they go home, they may not be thinking about how to preserve freedom.  

Yet, because they are meaning makers, they are also freedom fighters. The more meaning a person makes in their life, the less vulnerable they are to the liberty-reducing policies advocated by authoritarian politicians.

Many consider Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to be one of the most influential books of the 20th Century. Even under dire circumstances in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl observed how prisoners found opportunities to make meaning in their lives. Frankl coined the term logotherapy for his therapeutic doctrine and in 1962, included the essay “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” as a supplement to Man’s Search for Meaning. 

Logotherapy is based on, in Frankl’s words, a “striving to find a meaning in one’s life [as] the primary motivational force in man.” Each of us, Frankl explained, “is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” Frankl then adds, “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.”

Frankl proposed that individuals can discover “meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

We are called “to find the right answer to its [life’s] problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” A person who does not answer their “call” falls into what Frankl calls the “existential vacuum.” Without taking responsibility to make meaning, an individual, in Frankl’s words, “either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer was published in 1951, five years after the publication of Man’s Search for Meaning. To understand why those who don’t make meaning turn to tyranny, Hoffer’s work is essential.

In his opening sentence, Hoffer writes, “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life.” 

Insightfully, Hoffer observes, “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

Hoffer states his thesis, “A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.” 

People “who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement.” Hoffer describes the mindset of those who haven’t made meaning in their lives: “the prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort… They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil.”

Those living “barren” lives without meaning have no love for freedom, as Hoffer clearly writes: “Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration.” 

For those who have given up, Hoffer writes, “freedom is an irksome burden.” He adds, “Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual?” 

Having failed to make meaning in their lives, Hoffer explains, “they find elements of pride, confidence and purpose by identifying themselves with the efforts, achievements and prospects of the [mass] movement.” 

In a timeless warning, Hoffer explained that a mass tyrannical movement can unify people around hate:

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle quivering with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass. 

Totalitarians manipulate people to coalesce around fighting an invented “devil.” “Every difficulty and failure within the movement is the work of the devil, and every success is a triumph over his evil plotting.” Those who take no responsibility for building a meaningful life find meaning in their hate: “Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.”

Let’s sum it up. Hoffer writes, “People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to…abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility.” Meanwhile, those who make meaning in their lives walk on by when totalitarians come calling. 

You might think, but what about the millions whose jobs are so mundane that it seems they have little opportunity to make meaning through work?  In their Harvard Business Review essay “What Job Crafting Looks Like,” professors Jane E. Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski explore how people can and do make meaning at work. A large part of job crafting is cognitive changes — not doing a number on yourself and pretending you like work you don’t — but changes Frankl would applaud.

A cleaner at a hospital “saw her work as much more than her cleaning responsibilities. Instead, she cognitively reframed her work as a form of healing, playing a key role ‘in the house of hope.’” She made meaning as “she paid additional attention to the tasks that might help people recover and leave the hospital more quickly.”

The meaning-making cleaner, dental staff, and millions of other ordinary Americans are at the front lines of defending freedom. Fully occupied in the service of others, they will resist the siren call of authoritarians telling them they are victims. No wonder many politicians work full-time to make more people dependent on government. 

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