A Quest for Meaning

James Hollis
James Hollis

This past Friday evening, James Hollis, a Jungian analyst here in the Washington, DC area, gave a talk on “In-Between Times.” In every passage, he reminded us, something must die so that something new may be born. Western culture is in such a passage. The United States is in such a passage. And, I would add, many of us gay men are in such a passage.

Western Christian culture was built on a number of myths. By myths, I mean the paradigms by which we make sense of the world. Myths often work at the unconscious level to make sense of the energies of our psyches. One of the myths of Western Christian culture was heteronormativity. Men and women, the myth says, are complementary. Men are masculine, and women are feminine. The purpose of this arrangement and of human sexuality in general is the production and rearing of children.

This myth, broadly speaking, functioned well enough in society at large for nearly two millenia. The problem, of course, is that it did not consider all of reality. Some human experience was always marginalized and excluded by this myth. And today, our values of justice and equality are taking precedence over the myth of heteronormativity. We who are LGBTIQ are fighting for and gaining our right to be treated as equals.

The collapse of heteronormativity is welcome news to us. But not to everyone. Many people and institutions feel threatened by this collapse. The Harris Poll recently released a study which found that the level of tolerance for sexual minorities in the United States decreased in 2017 for the first time since Harris began doing this annual study. Opponents of equality fear what will happen if the classic myths of our culture are no longer operative. Will society devolve into amoral chaos? I understand their fear, even if I do not share it. There’s a good argument to be made for why we humans need myths.

The Importance of Myth

Dante Alighieri

The myths that governed Christendom have been collapsing one by one for centuries. James Hollis joked Friday night that the last time the Western world made sense was 1320. That’s the year Dante completed his Divine Comedy. Whatever one thinks of his ponderous poetry and baroque accounts of hell, purgatory, and heaven, Dante’s masterpiece represents an orderly view of the world, the culmination of a millennium of theological and philosophical reflection in the Western world.

There’s a popular and outdated view of the Middle Ages that terms them the Dark Ages. People still use that term, though historians have mostly abandoned it. The term was made popular by 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers who wanted to glorify their own era. Yet the Enlightenment produced more than a few atrocities, and the “Dark Ages” produced more than a few advances, some of which are still important institutions in our culture.

Foremost among these is the university. The first was the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, followed shortly by the University of Paris (c. 1150) and the University of Oxford (1167). The “Dark Ages” were not dark. Universities were the product of a well-ordered society that, if nothing else, made sense. They were the product of a certain theology in which everything had its place in the cosmic order. Everything made sense.

Few people today would want to return to the medieval mindset. Most of us do not, for instance, support the divine right of kings. And yet, there is always the danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Myths structure a society, and jettisoning them has its risks.

When we think of myths we usually think of stories about the gods. We may regard these stories as fanciful, even silly. Why, we wonder, did people believe such things? They believed them because they made sense of the world. We may rid ourselves of these stories, but do we rid ourselves of the realities toward which they pointed? Nearly a century ago, psychoanalytic pioneer Carl Jung wrote:

Carl Jung

“We think we can congratulate ourselves on having already reached such a pinnacle of clarity, imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal specters, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.”

Myths order the psychic world. They give life meaning. When they fall apart, the psyche may begin to crack.

If some people fight for heteronormativity, it is in part because this myth brings order to their psyches, and meaning to their lives. They define themselves by it. I am a man, they might say, and so I know my role in the cosmos. It is to care for a woman, and with her to parent children. Or, I am a woman, and I find my salvation in bearing children and nurturing them to adulthood. If society no longer supports that myth, what then? The loss raises questions many people don’t want to face: Who am I apart from the myth? Does my life have any real significance? Or is life in fact random and meaningless? Is meaning an illusion?

A Gay Myth?

As gay men we have little choice but to face such questions. Few cultures in the world today have a paradigm that includes a meaningful role for gay men. Yet we exist. Of course, we ought to be treated with equality. But equality, in and of itself, does not provide meaning. We are here. But why? Is there any purpose to our being here? Does our orientation somehow contribute to the well-being of society?

Marty Seligman
Martin Seligman

Perhaps, someone might say, we can do without a myth. Let’s confine ourselves to objective facts. Yet if one includes among these objective facts the findings of modern psychology, we need meaning to flourish. Psychologist Martin Seligman famously includes meaning in his PERMA model of well-being. He defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.”

In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman relates a conversation he had with Robert Wright. Seligman had just read an advance copy of Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright had argued in Nonzero that biological and cultural evolution has followed a basic pattern. From the beginning, it has favored organisms and societies that cooperate. Evolution is not a zero-sum game where one organism wins and all others lose. Rather, it is a non-zero-sum game in which survival correlates with cooperation.

Reading this led Seligman to ask questions about meaning. Now he’s face to face with Bob Wright. He asks, “Can human lives have noble purpose? Can our lives have a meaning that transcends meaning we merely create for ourselves? Has natural selection set us on this very path? What does science tell us about the presence or absence of a divine purpose?”

Good questions.

Seligman and many others see clearly the need for meaning, for belonging to and serving something greater than the self. But it is not clear to them what that “something greater” might be in this post-Christian era. Perhaps evolutionary biology can provide at least a partial answer.

James O’Keefe delivering his TEDx talk

Evolutionary biology is only beginning to suggest why some of us might be gay. Cardiologist James O’Keefe III offers a summary of some of its findings in a moving TEDx talkand a subsequent article in The Gay and Lesbian Review. O’Keefe tells of his son, who exemplifies how epigenetics may produce a male who supports his mother when she is under stress. The broader theory he articulates is that homosexuality enhances the survival of the family or the larger social unit. He quotes biologist E. O. Wilson, who says, “Homosexuality may give advantages to the group by special talents, unusual qualities of personality, and the specialized roles and professions it generates.”

61QkqMBhXaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Gilles Herrada (The Missing Myth) summarizes research on primates by saying, “Sexual behavior in general and homosexual behavior in particular form the bulk of the social glue that makes life in society possible.” Sexual favors among male apes, chimps, bonobos, and other primates facilitate alliances, promote group cohesion, reinforce social ranking, and help spread resources throughout the group. Without such behaviors, the violence of primate males can devastate a group. Likewise, sexual behaviors among females reinforce bonding and mutual support. It is not altogether clear how much of this analysis of primate behavior applies to human primates, especially those of us who are exclusively homosexual.

Evolutionary biology is still in its early days. What it has been able to tell us so far is helpful and affirming. But I am left wanting more. I’m not sure that what has been found to date accounts for the full breadth and depth of the gay experience.

A Call to Quest

It seems to me evolutionary biology can go only part-way toward providing the kind of meaning for which we long. We humans need to find meaning in our lives as a whole, not just in isolated behaviors or functions we can fulfill. Being gay is surely about more than offering sexual favors for food or gaining access to females. Is it also about more than specialized skills and group cohesion?

The kind of meaning that regulates and orders psychic energies is not something that can be imposed by the conscious mind on the unconscious. Carl Jung knew this well. Meaning must arise out of the unconscious. It must remain for us as numinous and powerful as the energies it orders.

Matthew Vines, a leading advocate for LGBT Christians

Some of us who are gay are still able to turn to the old myths and find meaning for many parts of our lives. Countless LGBTIQ people, for instance, are seemingly able to set aside Christianity’s historic antipathy toward them and find meaning in following Christ. Others find meaning in following Taoism, or Buddhism, or any number of other traditional paths.

But what of the one who no longer finds these paths available to him? Is there any way for him to find a myth that gives meaning to his life? “Then,” says Jung, “he has to go on the Quest; then he has to find out what his soul says; then he has to go through the solitude of a land that is not created.” As James Hollis puts it, “We all need to remember what our ancestors knew, that if we wait upon the silence, it speaks, and wait upon the darkness, it illumines.” We can be attentive to our dreams, listen for the inner voice, meditate, and engage our active imaginations, seeking clues to the numinous source of meaning in our lives.

We gay men need to embark on a quest for meaning.

Even if we find ourselves on a traditional path, there are few such paths that give meaning to our gayness. It seems to me that collectively we gay men need to embark on a quest for meaning. Let’s start a conversation about what being gay means to us. If Martin Seligman’s research is right, our well-being depends on it. If Carl Jung is right, our psychological health depends on it.


Looking Ahead

Next week, we’ll begin a series on the myth of Hercules, or Herakles as the Greeks called him. The story of Hercules is a classic hero’s journey. My purpose is to suggest ways that your story and mine are the tales of heroes. Just by virtue of being gay, we are cast outside the city gates, and called to a quest — for meaning, for transformation, ultimately for the well-being of society. What are the common features of our quest? What monsters do we often face? How do we capture or slay them?

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the meaning of being gay. There are no wrong answers. I’m sure our experiences are different, and your voice needs to be heard as well as mine. So please feel free to scroll down and comment.


For more on this topic, see Our Place in the World.”


Notes & Credits
“We think we can congratulate…”: Carl Jung, Collected Works, vol. 13, ¶54 (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
He defines meaning as “belonging to…”: Martin Seligman, Flourish (New York: The Free Press, 2011), 17.
“Can human lives have noble purpose…”: Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 251.
“Sexual behavior in general…”: Gilles Herrada, The Missing Myth (New York: SelectBooks, 2013), 72.
Then,” says Jung, “he has to go…”: Jung, CW 18, ¶672.

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