Duty and Meaning

The underlying attitude of modern American culture is “You can’t tell me what to do,” or in it’s more punk rock formulation: “F*ck you, Dad.” Petulant? Yes. Self-indulgent? Certainly. But the important question is, does it make us happy? Does the mentality of “I do what I want” really bring lasting satisfaction? No. This attitude shirks duty in favor of radical individual freedom. But the price of this freedom is a pervasive lack of meaning.

Emptiness characterizes the state of our souls. We have internalized the message that no one can, or should, tell us what to do. As a result, we have been forced to decide for ourselves what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. The optimistic thinkers of earlier ages envisioned this cultural revolution as one that would result in utopia. How could freedom be bad? Well, as a child of the age of freedom, I can assure you that it can be very bad indeed. By destroying the organic social duties of family, church, and state, we are left with a soulless void. We may have iPhones and tasty food, but it is all the worse, for we cannot enjoy even those things as anything other than momentary distractions from the ennui of our souls. By letting each of us decide for ourselves what is good, we as a culture have decided that nothing is really good. I cannot think of a society more confused as to what “the good life” really is. I cannot think of a society more unable to comprehend the truth. I cannot think of a society more enamored of ugliness. (Have you seen modern art?) The good, true, and beautiful things of this world have been shunted aside as each man vainly pursues his own whims.

Duty is what we lack. By taking on responsibility, we become more responsible. By taking on duties, we give up our freedom, but we find meaning. What is the most meaningful thing your parents did? Probably to have and raise you. But, every parent knows that children are a huge restriction on freedom. This is the trade off. Meaning and Duty, or Freedom and Emptiness. In more sane ages, people recognized the duties they were born into, and worked to live up to those obligations. In our insane age, we deny that we can be born into any obligations, and fritter away our lives on meaningless work or empty leisure.

What am I to do? What meaning can be found in a world that has lost its meaning? Search for duties to take up. To quote Jordan Peterson, “start with cleaning up your room.” Even if you live alone, you have a duty to respect yourself, and to respect your living space. But there are duties everywhere to be found for the one willing (and able) to shoulder them. Your church always needs volunteers for something. You are born with an obligation to your parents, so why not call them? Your friend needs help moving. If you are dating, work towards marriage, do not be content with coasting. Take on responsibility at work. Do something. For, in meeting the obligations others have set on you, in living up to the standards of your community, a modicum of meaning can be found.


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