By Christopher Pieper, Ph.D. and Nathaniel Dietrick, Baylor University
Understanding conflict as an attempt to fill an existential vacuum allows us see that these various battles fundamentally are not about what they seem to be about. They are engaged in not to defeat the enemy or resolve the conflict. Indeed, most of these battles are chosen precisely because the enemy can never be defeated. Battle itself is the objective. Therefore, to a large degree, any enemy will suffice. It becomes clear after considering a number of cases over decades of history that the content of the conflict is near irrelevant. What is essential is the form. The form of conflict provides a structure and direction, a profound type of clarity to life. People lacking these will crave conflict like an addict, even manufacturing it if necessary. On an emotional level, conflict offers excitement, drama, and a sense of danger that is likewise often sought to shake up the mundanity of post-scarcity life.
Despite the many problems that conflict might apparently solve for post-moderns, it also creates or worsens serious problems as well. Most prominently, regardless of the fact that these conflicts are ultimately content-free and unresolvable by design, they still have real effects in the world while they are being pursued. The young man who goes to war to fill the meaning-shaped hole in his spirit may still return maimed physically and mentally whether or not he finds the purpose he was seeking. The hate-mongering talk radio host may spew bile everyday to defeat a manufactured enemy with a fantasy diabolical agenda in order to feel she is fighting an urgent cosmic battle, none of which may have any bearing on reality. But the millions who hear, believe, and act on his words may still poison their communities and families in palpable ways. The Thomas theorem is a useful reminder here: what people define as real is real in terms of its effects.
Conflict as an existential solution will no doubt continue for a long time, mostly because of its impressive ability to address so many of our social and cultural needs so efficiently. But it is not the only or and certainly not the best answer for meeting them. Far better would be a cultural schema that provides the same benefits that conflict offers with fewer externalities, as the economists say. Ideally, it would even generate positive side effects to the collective, above and beyond what it generates for participants. We argue that this alternative is creation.
Without going into exhaustive detail here, we simply contend that the act of creativity has been and can still be a meaning schema of immeasurable richness and satisfaction for those struggling with anomic dilemmas. What do we mean by creation exactly? A few subtypes are clear: aesthetics, discovery, cultivation, and innovation.
Aesthetics includes music, dance, literature, film, painting, animation, architecture, and design of any kind. The joy and purpose found in such pursuits have few peers in all of human endeavor. Not only is the artist caught up in the flow and bliss of creating something new and beautiful, but they catch us as audiences up in it as well. Creating art is a unique gift to the world, and often a deliverance for the artist.
Discovery includes science, research, data collection, analysis, experimentation, observation, invention: asking new and tough questions of any kind. The excitement of discovery is so intense and pure that it has a name all its own: Eureka! Scientists of every stripe often report that the motive behind their work has little to do with potential fortune or prestige (which is often unrequited) but the intrinsic and inimitable rapture of the moment of true discovery itself. The act of finding and describing something new and bringing it to the world is a win-win for both creator and collective. We live in a time when scientific creations have made the lives of millions richer, longer, healthier, and more fun, and left their creators with an abiding feeling of purpose and contribution.
Thinking back to McNamee (see part one), the cultivation of relationships is another vital aspect of building a sense of life-meaning. Social connection is a major component of the human experience, one that is often overridden by our emphasis on expressive individualism and immersion in the digital world of “social” media. Many studies have now established that positive interaction with those around us increases our level of happiness, while isolation is associated with lower well-being. Here the quality of relationships trumps the quantity. In an age where “friends” are collected on Facebook like Pokemon in the deck of an eleven-year-old, we can often suffer from a void of real and fulfilling bonding and intimacy with friends and family. Taking time to cultivate our relationships provides a uniquely satisfying form of purpose that also keeps us engaged with the world around us.
Innovation is a hybrid of discovery and art. Innovation is based in solving problems, seeing an old thing in a new way, adapting a piece from part A into part B, courageously trying an approach that seems crazy but just might work. American history is replete with accounts of tinkerers, men and women who just couldn’t leave something alone, especially if they knew it could be improved. This impulse toward tweaking gave us the World Wide Web as an innovation on the Internet, the smartphone as an innovation of the cell phone, hip-hop as an innovation on rhythm and blues, and the micro-loan as an upgrade to charity. The world always has a place for the improver, and a life dedicated to improvement is never purposeless.
All four faces of creation—discovery, aesthetics, cultivation, and innovation—have an additional, transcendent advantage: they are what make us distinctly human. Creativity at the level demonstrated by human beings is degrees of magnitude greater than anything achievable by our animal cousins. To be human, as Karl Marx said, is to create. Ironically, Marx is seen in sociology as the theorist most linked with conflict. And though much of his work described the many varieties of tensions that emerge in human society, he never argued that conflict was essential to human nature. Indeed, conflict sprung, he claimed, from a frustration of this primeval birthright to create, a notion he shared with Aristotle. Perhaps if we take heed of this old but good idea, we can begin to break our addiction to conflict and embrace a more humane solution to our need for meaning.
Christopher Pieper, Ph.D is lecturer in sociology at Baylor University. His book Sociology as a Spiritual Practice: How Studying People Can Make You a Better Person, demonstrates that spirituality and social science are complementary paths toward personal and collective flourishing. He is now working on several projects related to morality, economics, and media culture.
Nathaniel Dietrick is a sociology alumnus of Baylor University and longtime Wacoan. After finishing his military service he became interested in stratification, masculinity, and the reasons for conflict. He is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Vista working to build curriculum for a scholars program.