Recently, Paul Raushenbush, the religion editor for Huffington Post, wrote what was, for me, a very interesting post entitled ‘ISIS and the Crisis of Meaning”. He focused particularly on the US citizen killed fighting for ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State accused of so much brutality against those who do not conform to their belief and practice. He wondered why this young man would leave the US and devote himself to this cause. His thesis is that this conversion and devotion, even to the point of dying, is about a search for meaning. It is about a search for some meaning that young men in this age group in many countries often do not find in their lives. In contrast, ISIS and many other groups with radical devotion to a cause provide very clear meaning and purpose and unwavering devotion to it. There is no higher devotion to a cause of course than being willing to give one’s life for it.
There is no doubt for me certainly about the centrality and power of meaning in our lives. While there are myriad definitions of “religion” and “spirituality” one of their commonalities is that meaning making is central to seemingly all of them. One of the seminal tasks of a health care chaplain is to help people who are experiencing severe disruption of their system of meaning due to illness and suffering to recast their system of meaning to one which can incorporate the current facts of their life. This adjustment is often critical to enabling them to proceed with their lives. Sometimes the new meaning system doesn’t have to even be particularly positive. Apparently, being able to make some meaning out of one’s current circumstances even when that meaning doesn’t give one peace or happiness is better than not being able to make meaning of one’s current situation at all. So I have seen many patients who are comforted by the belief that their god is the cause of their illness just because their situation now “makes sense”.
But what about those who can find no meaning in their lives and feel compelled to literally give up their lives and cause harm to others in the cause of making meaning for themselves? What can we do even in the US to help those who do not have meaning in their lives to find it? I do not have the silver bullet of course, but certainly a first essential step is to recognize that the problem exists. So, it is all too easy and common to lay off the conditions that produce terrorists on others- as in this all has something to do with conditions in the Middle East. However, when it becomes clear that some significant number of these fighters are born and raised in first world counties, there is clearly something more going on. We have to be willing to ask the question, what is happening or not happening in our own country and culture that is producing ISIS fighters? What is missing for these young men of such a basic nature that they can be radicalized to this degree? When we start asking this question, there will be many who have “answers”. My personal bet is that the answers have a lot to do with values such as compassion, mutual respect, forgiveness and dignity which are all too often in short supply. Any of these solutions that are reasonable need to be tried. Those of us who know something about how to help people make meaning in their lives would seem to bear some special responsibility in this matter.
This is not just about giving a few young men a better and more fulfilling life as important as that goal would be. If Mr. Raushenbush is correct, dropping bombs on ISIS fighters may temporarily deter this threat and protect some innocent lives, but it will not solve the underlying problem. Dealing with this crisis of meaning may be about nothing less than cutting down on and maybe even eventually eliminating a lot of the terrorism that seems to be increasingly plaguing our world.