These fundamental questions have been pondered through the centuries by inquiring minds searching for answers to the meaning of life. This is not the proverbial naval gazing, as some might suggest, but rather the core issues that concern many in various aspects of life and death. Through the ages, philosophers have questioned their existence and connection to a creator, spawning a multitude of religions and spiritual beliefs that purport to have the answers to these questions.
The search for the meaning of life is bound in philosophical, religious and spiritual concepts that include discussion and debate on the existence of a universal consciousness, a Higher Spirit (God), the soul, and afterlife. Although these theoretical subjects are far above the concerns of most people, exploration of these concepts are vital in dealing with activities of daily living and one’s response to unexpected crises that may be experienced during ones lifetime. A strong foundation and belief in one’s identity, meaning and purpose in life, as well as spiritual convictions may help turn negative experiences into opportunities for growth (Ryś, 2009).
In Erikson’s (1968) Crisis of Identity, eight psychosocial stages of an individual’s life cycle was postulated including (a) basic trust vs. basic mistrust of infancy, (b) autonomy vs. shame of early childhood, (c) initiative vs. guilt of pre-school age, (d) industry vs. inferiority of school age children, (e) identity vs. identity confusion of adolescences, (f) intimacy vs. isolation of young adulthood, (g) generativity vs. stagnation of middle age, and (f) integrity vs. despair of old age. The word crisis implied a negative connotation but for Erikson crisis simply meant a turning point in an individual’s life when a new problem was confronted and mastered (Atalay, 2007). Erikson (1994) believed that the final task of human development was an understanding of all one’s achievements and experiences resulting in integrity of the self. “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity” (Erikson, 1968, p. 38).
Goffman (1963) explored stigma as spoiled identity but in modern-day attitudes of victimization, stigma transformed one’s hidden injury into the grounds for “a claim of valued identity. Identity can be claimed…. only to the extent that it can be represented as denied, repressed, injured or excluded by others” (Rose, 1999, p. 268). Collective forms of identity have a central position in Griffiths (1995) feminist social theory, the study of masculinities (Connell, 1995) and in youth and adolescence (Baumeister, 1986). Erikson (1968) believed that identity was “a process located at the core of the individual and yet also at the core of his communal culture” (p. 22).
Maslow (1943, 1954) posited that there were five hierarchies of human needs (a) physiological (survival) needs, (b) safety, (c) belongingness and love, (d) esteem, and (e) self-actualization as a desire for self-fulfillment. Maslow (1998) believed that “The study of self-fulfilling people can teach us much about our own mistakes, our short comings, the proper direction in which to grow” (p. 6). Maslow (1943) believed that there was a level above self-actualization on the pyramid of Hierarchy of Needs. This level was called self-transcendence that few people (2% of the population) ever attain and that it was impossible to reach this level of consciousness if basic needs were not met. This sixth need was a motivational state in which a person seeks something beyond personal benefit, for example, the furtherance of some greater cause, union with a power beyond self, and/or service to others as an expression of identification beyond personal ego (Koltko-Rivera, 2006).
Historically, the current crisis of identity may be related to four characterizations of modern-day life including (a) the exploration of self-knowledge; (b) the valorization of human potential and modern secularization’s priority of achieving self-realization in this world, rather than being satisfied with waiting for the rewards of the next world; (c) the breakdown of hierarchies, rise of individualism and social mobility; and (d) a new flexibility of self-definition based on shifting and non-absolute foundations (Bendle, 2002, p. 6).
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Baumeister, R. (1986). Identity: Cultural change and the struggle for self. New York, NY: Oxford Press University.
Bendle, M. F. (2002). The crisis of ‘identity’ in high modernity. British Journal of Sociology, 53(1), 1-18. doi:10.1080/00071310120109302
Connell, R. (1995). Masculinities. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton.
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. New York, NY: Norton.
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Ringwood, MA: Penguin.
Griffiths, M. (1995). Feminism and the self: The web of identity. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
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Maslow, A. H. (1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.
Rose, N. (1999). Governing the soul. London, United Kingdom: Free Association Press.
Ryś, E. (2009). The sense of life as a subjective spiritual human experience. Existential Analysis, 20(1), 50-68. Retrieved from http://www.existentialanalysis.co.uk/page22.html