Finding Purpose in Higher Education

Every military serviceman or woman who has chosen to leave their established ordered life in the military has taken a chaotic risk. The broad expectations provided by deployment cycles and the everyday concretized routines provided grounding for their lives. When they chose to leave that ordered world, they cut their moors and, inevitably, found themselves lost at sea – until they again dropped anchor near solid ground. After abandoning the prescribed military purpose, it becomes time to define your own purpose or meaning in life. 

What is purpose or meaning in life? “Global Meaning” is your worldview, the broadest possible schema, a hierarchy of goals and beliefs, which, in turn, determine your actions. When your hierarchically ordered goals are disrupted, you can fall into a sense of meaninglessness, left to question what you should do or why you should do anything at all. This has consequences, and at its extreme, the loss of meaning is associated with substance abuse, PTSD, and suicidal ideation1,2.

This state, I believe, exists in the culture. For decades, mental health problems have been on the rise3. The Opioid Epidemic is a desire to numb oneself, and the pervasive nostalgia embedded in pop culture is on full display in the constant remakes and reboots of once-lovable films. GhostbustersMad Max, Planet of the Apes, 21 Jump Street, Dredd, It, and Star Wars, whose titanic failure was only assisted by the lifeboats of J.J. Abram’s nostalgic callbacks, are symptomatic of a civilization-level desire to return to an easier time, a child-like comfort no longer afforded to us. The influx of Postmodern doctrine, which holds up “deconstruction” as a torch to culture and art but cannot construct anything of its own, also bears the blame for pop culture’s disembowelment4

Viktor Frankl, the existential psychologist and holocaust survivor, saw in his time, in America and the west broadly, the expanding event-horizon of what he called an “existential vacuum,” wherein students and citizens found themselves crushed by the gravity of meaninglessness5

At base (in both meanings of the word), these phenomenon take on the writhing pattern of “ouroboric incest,” the sick desire to unify oneself with unconsciousness, always calling to the developing individual as the sirens, the witch who fattens up Hansel and Gretel, the warm womb-like embrace, and even la petite mort6. This last point is made all the more clear in the psychological literature. When meaninglessness is present, college-aged men and women turn to drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous behavior to relieve themselves of their overwhelming anxieties, to feel comforted in the embrace of silence7

This horror of meaninglessness and its concomitant chaos, well displayed in Rick & Morty wherein life carries little value to the capricious grindstone of the universe, can be overcome! This is evident in post-traumatic growth and the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, John Stuart Mill, and Leo Tolstoy. And in the philosophy of Albert Camus. In psychology, the path to meaningfulness is mapped by Paul Wong and William Breitbart8. Breitbart developed a model where his patients would confront their fear of mortality by defining what they would consider to be a good or meaningful death – an exercise I suspect many military members have already explored. 

Here then, is the guidepost to meaning: write! James Pennebaker, a psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin, has established the efficacy of expressively writing (directions can be found here). Choose a topic, perhaps what would make a good death, and write about it. Then, write about your goals. First, ask yourself “why” you want to accomplish those goals, and then boil it down to “how” you will accomplish them. 

Meaning in life is found to buffer against anxiety, drug and alcohol use9, and the stressors of resource loss. After Hurricane Katrina, those who had greater meaning in their lives were less likely to experience the trauma of losing what they had10. Meaning in life is associated with motivation, self-concordance, and wellbeing11. And for those of us who are students – meaning in life predicts academic performance12

In a tumultuous cultural milieu, after having made a significant change to your life, when the choices available to you are overwhelming, and you need to establish your trajectory, when you want to feel motivated, self-determined, and purposeful – write. Find meaning and purpose in life and tie yourself to solid ground.

  4. Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020.
  5. Psychotherapy and Existentialism by Viktor Frankl, 1967.
  6. The Origins and History of Consciousness by Eric Neumann, 1949.