I have a new theory of human meaning, and human happiness.
It sprung from contemplating my "need to be needed." (See my previous post, "The Geek Shall Inherit…") I think at some level everyone feels a need to be needed. "Being needed" is almost synonymous with "being significant"; if you aren't needed, then you are superfluous, unnecessary, insignificant, and therefore meaningless. If you are needed, that means you are fulfilling a necessary role in the world. People care who you are and what you do. They are counting on you. They rejoice in your victories and bemoan your losses. When you listen to people who are obviously galvanized by a compelling purpose, you hear the language of need: "They really need me here." "They can't make it without me." Even if it's not directly stated, the necessity of your activity is implied. When one says, "I'm making a difference here," it implies the necessity of your action-- because, if you're action was unnecessary, could you say you're making a difference?
"Nonsense!" declares the hard-charging businessman with his copy of Atlas Shrugged in his briefcase. "I don't do this stuff to be needed! I just want to be the best! I'm doing this for myself!" Hmmm . . . Well, the businessman might think he's in it just for himself, but empirically it doesn't seem to hold up. If you dig into his definition of what "being the best" means, you will ultimately find that it involves filling someone's need. The railroad he builds, or the media empire, or the work of art, is ultimately judged as "good" or even "great" to the extent that it fulfills some human need.
So . . . We need to be needed. And with that need comes the burden of necessity. When your action is required, it becomes a duty, something you have to do. (Never mind, for the moment, that you might also want to do it; it still remains a necessity, a have-to-do.) Now, the burden of necessity can be a blessing; lots of people talk about "having a reason to get out of bed in the morning." They want to have some necessity to compel them to action. Some people even find a certain intensity and bliss in all their actions coming from sheer necessity. Soldiers and others in life-and-death struggles often report a lightness in their being, a clarity unclouded by doubt. They know what they need to do, and they do it . . . which is more than many of us can claim for our day-to-day lives.
Over time, though, the burden of necessity can ultimately lead to being enslaved by necessity. Unless the necessity we serve is completely in accord with our true desires, we find ourselves feeling trapped by our duties and obligations. Think of Steve Martin's character in Parenthood, snarling to his wife: "My whole life is 'have to' !" We feel deprived of freedom, deprived of choice, a mere cog in the works of society.
So . . . we can look to the other side of meaning, which is freedom. I'll take that up tomorrow.