Many people would agree that this society is filled with a general feeling of malaise and despair. We carry on an almost frantic search for meaning in life. But do we really need another book on the topic?
The Search for Meaning, by Will Willimon and Thomas and Magdalena Naylor, has several things to commend it. The context from which it originates is interesting in itself. A Duke University seminar offered the occasion for two of the authors and 15 students to meet over a period of 14 weeks to discuss "the search for meaning." The first gathering started 10 minutes after the bombing of Baghdad began on the evening of January 16, 1991. The world situation gave heightened intensity to the questions: Why are we here? What does it all mean? The book was conceived in genuine discussion.
(Impressively, two of the authors changed their lifestyles significantly after writing the book. They moved to Vermont to begin to live consistently with the values that were clarified through the seminar.)
A commitment to honest realism marks the book as significant. The authors admit that colleges and universities are ineffective in helping students find meaning in their lives. Too often, students learn how to pass tests, not how to live.
The authors also acknowledge that much of popular psychology suggests that meaning can be found only by turning inward. It is also noted that in contrast to the 1960s, when many Americans were genuinely concerned about social issues, our attention in the 1980s turned toward ourselves and our immediate family. Our society has shifted away from social and community values to individual and family values.
There are many warnings about hoping for easy answers. The Search for Meaning asks hard questions instead.