I have been thinking recently some of a book I have read, a speech I heard, and also a song whose meaning I finally interpreted the rest of the way. In fall of this year, I ordered Donald Miller’s A Million Miles And A Thousand Years. It was a very good read about Don’s personal experience with finding meaning in life, or making the story of your life meaningful. It has some very tangible ways to find meaning accentuated by some very excellent stories about what actually gives meaning in life.
I aslo heard a condensed version of the book in a speech that he gave on the book tour. It was also very excellent and it was interesting to me how some of things he said in his speech were made more apparent than when I read the book. I must not have been paying good attention.
He talked about Sigmund Freud’s theories involving man’s pursuit of pleasure and Viktor Frankl’s theory that countered it. One of the things that struck me the most in his speech was that when we don’t find meaning in life, we numb that lack of meaning by pursuing pleasure.
This is why U2’s Numb from their cryptic album Zooropa began to make a lot of sense. Some very powerful sense. The album is an impressionistic, and in my opinion, realistic, as critic Robert Hilburn put it, “probing into ‘the disillusionment of the modern age.'” (Wikipedia) From that standpoint, Numb makes a lot of sense.
I identified it from the beginning as being about a person who is doing his best not to feel, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. It is a very strange, almost creepy song, and very appropriate for what the song is about. It has a very lonely feel to it. As usual, they do excellent job of making the music interpret and help to communicate the words. Their guitarist, Edge, sings lead vocals on it. The lead vocals in the entire song are sung in an eery combination of chant and a complete monotone. (No it’s not rap.) This and the song’s occasional grating guitar tone give the song its character. It communicates the mood perfectly.
The part that confused me about the song, as I said, was the reason for the numbness. Bono sings background vocals on the song for a change, and at intervals throughout the song, he belts out the falsetto line “I feel numb. Too much is not enough.” It was after I heard this speech that it struck me. This is about a person who can’t find meaning in life. He is desperately trying to numb this empty, unfulfilled state with pleasure. “Too much is not enough.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like America?
Freud thought that man’s chief desire in life was pleasure. America is on a pleasure overdose. If pleasure gives happiness, Americans should be ecstatic 24/7. I don’t think there is any society more infatuated with the pursuit of pleasure and comfort. The myriad ways to amuse yourself and get that “pleasure fix” are at an unprecedented high. Yet somehow, we all know that Americans are not the happiest people in the world.
Viktor Frankl countered Freud’s theory with another states that when Man chief desire is to find meaning and purpose. And when he cannot find that meaning or purpose, he tries to numb it with pleasure. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Look all around you. It proves the theory. It seems like Americans are becoming increasingly self-centered and individualistic. The last thing we want to to do is sacrifice our wants for someone else.
Now, more personally, doesn’t that sound like me?
It’s not easy to put your finger on that feeling, but I have felt it before. That emptiness. That feeling of trying to fill up my life selfishly with only things that are easy and fun. It’s like eating plate after plate of desert and hoping that sick feeling in my stomach goes away. It was so good several minutes ago. It is usually after several days of “eating desert” that I feel sick enough to realize what’s happening.
It often happens when I get distracted with unimportant things and I stop trying very hard to do the sacrificial things that give life meaning. Honestly, I feel the most fulfilled when I have done something for someone else. It is after I have won this struggle with myself between whether I will do what I feel like doing or whether I will do what I should. When I do this I forget what actually fulfills me. It’s usually those times that God throws something difficult at me to remind me of what is important in life.
We are fulfilled when we sacrifice for others. That is what gives life meaning. It’s kind of cool that God designed it that way. I don’t always like it that He did, because sacrifice is very rarely fun. It just isn’t. I really like the idea of pleasure being like desert. It’s good, but a diet of it becomes pretty gross. Plus, too much makes us fat and lazy and then it takes us longer to do things we should be doing.The main difference between desert and pleasure is that it usually takes me longer to figure out when I’ve had too much pleasure.
What do you guys think? How is it for you?