Our Natural Hunger for Meaning Requires Political Change
"What's it all about?" is a question that comes to us naturally. We cannot help but ask and attempt to answer this question. Such is the conviction of Michael Lerner, co-founder with Peter Gabel of the Politics of Meaning movement. The very first words of his 1996 "The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism" read: "Most Americans hunger for meaning and purpose in life."Michael Lerner is a rabbi. He believes that the meaning and purpose of life are revealed in the Bible, that we are made in the image of God, and that our task is to participate in the care and healing of each other and of our planet. Lerner realizes, of course, that his "God talk" may repel some individuals he hopes to attract to his movement. Today, many of the people committed to progressive change and social justice would identify themselves as agnostics or atheists. Lerner insists, however, that belief is not required for full participation in the Politics of Meaning movement. Anyone who believes, with Immanual Kant, that human beings must always be ends, never means, and who is dedicated to the healing of the human family and of the planet itself, will find the people of the Politics of Meaning effective and crucial allies.The origins of the movement are found in a stress clinic Lerner and others opened in Oakland in 1976. Lerner, who has a doctorate in psychology, began counseling working men and women. For well over a decade he and his colleagues facilitated conversations among thousands of working Americans about the stresses they were experiencing in the workplace and at home. These were, it is important to note, the very Americans who would, during the '80s, move American politics dramatically to the right. Many of the participants in these studies would be numbered among the "Reagan Democrats."What Lerner and his colleagues discovered surprised them profoundly. They realized that their assumptions about middle-income Americans had been patronizing, decidedly off-target. They expected to find people who were materialistic and self-interested, angry about their wages, and resentful at the behavior of their bosses. Yes, self-interest and workplace frustration were expressed. But, at the deepest level, these workers were experiencing more stress from feeling that they were wasting their lives doing meaningless work than from feeling that they were underpaid. "Is this all there is to life?" the counselors heard time and again.These workers were frustrated because their work seemed so meaningless in itself. They had a hunger to make a difference. They wanted more than self-advancement from their work. They wanted their work to help them connect with other people. They wanted to feel that they were making some contribution, no matter how small, to the common good.In fact, these workers were in pain -- profound pain. They hated living in a world dominated by self-interest and materialism. They hated their feelings of powerlessness and impotence. They also suffered because they had internalized a dominant view of our culture: the belief that we live in a meritocracy. Hence they consistently blamed themselves for the fact that they weren't "further along" or "doing better." They felt that few people could be trusted -- "it's every man for himself these days." They were unhappy that their own values were beginning to resemble those of the culture. "I'm essentially looking out only for myself and my family," they often said. "If I don't, who will?"To the dismay of Lerner and his liberal colleagues, these workers also increasingly expressed sympathy with the political Right. Why? Because they were in pain and because the Right sounded like it understood that pain. The right talked about the crisis in family values, the problem of teaching values to children in a world dominated by TV, the absence of spirituality, the seeming omnipresence of crime, violence, and gangs.Out of this experience, then, Lerner, the rabbi/psychologist, articulated his analysis of the current cultural and political landscape.He concluded that there is a spiritual crisis in America. According to Lerner, we long for purpose and meaning in our lives, though we live in a culture that ignores them, or, at best, "separates" them away from the mainstream and into the isolated spaces we reserve today for religious services and practices. We long to live lives of meaning, to connect with others and build communities of genuine care, to protect our planet and save it for future generations. We would like to create a culture which facilitates our search for meaning and nourishes our sense that "life is a mystery not just a mess," to use the wonderful words of Jack Miles in "God: A Biography."Instead, we experience a culture increasingly dominated by the competitive marketplace, a world where self-interest and individualism are nourished and encouraged. It's a world where workers are treated as means not ends, and corporations are free to blackmail communities with threats of departure, plunder the environment, and manipulate us into the materialistic purchases and lifestyles necessary to keep the now global engine purring.Where might we turn for help? Unfortunately, neither to the Right nor to the Left, though the Right does seem to have identified the problem. Drugs, crime, divorce rates, so many children being raised by single parents, the disappearance of the "village," violence in our media, our toddlers seduced into avid consumerism, gangs -- no wonder we worry about ourselves. We should. If progressives are puzzled as to why the great middle of the country has moved to the right, they need look no further.People are worried and they are in pain. They sense that the great center no longer holds. They fear the ground is moving under them. They are having an increasingly more difficult time holding themselves, their marriages, their families, and their communities together. They feel that America is no longer a "we." Because so many Americans are in pain, frustrated in their search for meaning and genuine community, because they experience such difficulty in passing their values down from generation to generation, they are attracted to the Right's rhetoric of family values and spiritual crisis.Unfortunately, however, the Right is riven in contradiction. It may do a good job of articulating the depth of the problems we face, but on the other hand, it ardently supports the very marketplace which is, at best, indifferent to family values, at worst, openly hostile to them. In fact, it is the marketplace that most prizes self-interest and individualism and sponsors the materialism that so distracts and mesmerizes us. Many corporations recklessly exploit their employees and then discard them callously. As Lerner is so fond of saying, "How does the Right get away with this?"How do things look on the Left side of the political spectrum? It has a proud history of ardent and successful definition and defense of individual rights. Further, the Left has consistently fought for a more just distribution of the fruits of the marketplace. In both of these endeavors the Left has, in the past, enjoyed much success.Three factors, however, render the Left impotent to reverse the current movement of the American majority to the right. First, the political Left in America, in the guise of the Democratic Party, has never dared to question whether the values inherent in the competitive marketplace are in fact directly in conflict with the citizens' need for community, compassion, and meaning. The political Left today is simply not prepared to engage in as deep a critique of the competitive marketplace. Indeed, the Left, following the lead of its New Democrat President, today meekly marches to the right with the majority of Americans.This critique does not apply, of course, to the academic Left in America, which does not hesitate to launch comprehensive ideological critiques of capitalism and the competitive marketplace. The academic Left, however, remains politically impotent. Its devotees, comfortable in their academic foxholes, seem content to lob verbal grenades at one another and at a society they clearly consider vulgar.Second, the Left is profoundly uncomfortable with talk of God, spirituality, and meaning. It chooses to espouse neutral procedure, as if to say, "Let us not argue about content, about what is right and wrong. Let us rather guarantee that each citizen is free to decide whatever she pleases about such difficult and contentious questions. As much as we possibly can, let our actions as a people be value free." Thus, the Left has little to say to citizens agonizing over the very questions and issues it deliberately chooses to ignore.Third, the Left operates, unconsciously perhaps, out of a kind of hierarchy of pain. It has chosen to defend and protect those it judges to be in the most pain in this society, the demeaned others of America, such as ethnic and racial minorities, homosexuals, and women. Unfortunately, in its single-minded fight for these demeaned others, who are in profound pain, it has convinced the vast majority of Americans that the Left doesn't care about their pain and their concerns at all.Contradiction on the Right. Bankruptcy on the Left. How are the American people to affect change? Create a brand new politics, a Politics of Meaning.The Politics of Meaning is a political effort, a movement which seeks to change the bottom line in America. Lerner puts it succinctly:"An institution or social practice is to be considered efficient or productive to the extent that it fosters ethically, spiritually, ecologically, and psychologically sensitive and caring human beings. While this new definition of productivity does not reject the importance of material well-being, it subsumes that concern within an expanded view of 'the good life': one that insists on the primacy of spiritual harmony, loving relationships, mutual recognition, and work that contributes to the common good."Those who might find such goals wildly utopian Lerner would ask to reflect on the feminist movement. Thirty years ago its leaders were talking about ending patriarchy. They endured almost universal skepticism and ridicule. Who is laughing today? Lerner would also encourage skeptics to reflect on the ecological consequences of our species continuing down its current path. Can the planet and the species survive in a world where the ethos of the competitive marketplace rules? Is an altered bottom line rank utopianism or is it, in fact, required for our survival?Lerner is not opposed to working with the existing political parties. (In the early '90s he was, in fact, close to the Clintons. Recall the "I share your pain" refrain of Clinton's 1992 campaign. He believes, however, that it will take a massive people's movement, a movement which may take several decades to build, to effect the necessary changes.The building blocks are, in fact, beginning to form. In towns and cities across the country, people are meeting in group discussions to deepen their understanding of Lerner's ideas -- consciousness raising efforts similar to those seen in the earliest days of the feminist movement. The conversation has begun. Believers, atheists, and agnostics together struggle to articulate their personal meaning needs and to share the origins of their personal commitments to social and economic change. These conversations are not easy -- they go deep. But there is strong medicine here. Perhaps the participants will create sufficient mutual respect and trust to form a powerful movement which can contribute to the healing of our society and our planet."Lerner's book is published by Addison-Wesley and is now out in paperback.