Man's Search for Meaning and the Mystery of Flight 370

Why we strive to make sense of what happened to Flight 370.

Posted Mar 25, 2014

The human need for meaning is at the heart of existential psychotherapy as well as Jung's analytical psychology. This need is so basic, so primal, and so universal, that existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1946) wrote of what he called our "will to meaning." Whether one considers life inherently meaningless or absurd, like Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, or believes that life is intrinsically meaningful, like Kierkegaard, for example, few if any existentialists would deny our powerful psychological and spiritual hunger for meaning. As C.G. Jung pithily put it, "Man cannot stand a meaningless life." Which is why when confronted with a dramatic mystery such as the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a state-of-the-art jetliner in mid-flight, the primitive human instinct to make some meaning of what happened kicks into high gear.

Life's intrinsic mystery is one of the most difficult existential facts to accept for modern man. It poses a challenge and threat to our scientific rationalism. Consider, for instance, the mystery of death. As with natural disasters like the recent typhoon in the Philippines (see my prior post) or earthquake and tsunami in Japan, when a mechanically sophisticated machine full of people on a routine flight suddenly veers off course and crashes, killing all those aboard, for millions of global air travelers death becomes a very real phenomenon. Death anxiety, usually suppressed, resurges, as do frantic efforts to deny it. No one really knows what happens after we die. Is death a dead-end or a doorway? Death anxiety is in part intimately tied to this not knowing. But despite, or perhaps precisely due to, its enduring mystery, humankind has mused about death by way of religion, philosophy, and even science, seeking to make sense of this frightening, anxiety-provoking and painful phenomenon. The same may be said of other natural phenomena like birth, floods, solar eclipses, thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions, and the endless sea of stars shining in the night sky. Whether we believe in God or gods—which is one way of making life meaningful—or not, we strive to penetrate, explain and interpret the darkness of the unknown in some way, be it religiously, mythologically or scientifically. Most of us want answers. So we create scenarios to satisfy our psyche's archetypal need for meaning, completion, closure and security. The fact that these speculations are so diverse, fantastic and sometimes outlandish is a testament to both our infinite creativity and the impressive power of our primal need for meaning.

Mainly, this almost compulsive craving for meaning comes from the anxiety of not knowing: the unknown can be quite terrifying, generating considerable existential anxiety, which, in turn, can be extremely uncomfortable. To tolerate this anxiety of not knowing for any prolonged length of time can be excruciating. Therefore, we tend to try to allay our existential anxiety by desperately attempting to assign some significance or meaning to such events. This is the reason so many theories, some extremely far-fetched, are generated by the fertile human imagination to try to explain mysterious phenomena like UFO's (see my prior posts here and here), the "Bermuda Triangle," the JFK assassination (see my prior post), or the vanishing of Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew. We humans have a hard-wired need to know. Not knowing why things happen, what causes them, or who perpetrated them leaves us with unfinished business, psychologically speaking. Nature abhors a vacuum. Our minds work overtime to solve the riddle, to make it more meaningful, to complete the puzzle. We humans are natural born detectives, scouring the clues, reviewing the evidence, seeking to crack the case, because not to do so leaves us with the disquieting  anxiety of not knowing and an incomplete picture or gestalt of the world. For if such tragic, terrible, sometimes evil deeds or events can happen without any apparent rhyme or reason, when there are things which we cannot rationally comprehend, explain or control, this makes the universe a very dangerous, unpredictable and scary place to be. So part of what motivates our perennial quest for meaning is the desire and basic human need for some sense of safety and security. It is a way of allaying our existential anxiety. We have a difficult time admitting that our true and only real salvation lies in what Alan Watts (1951) calls "the wisdom of insecurity": "the radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves [from such existential insecurity]." Of course, this is exactly how life really is. Mysterious. Unpredictable. Insecure. Enigmatic. One way of dulling both life and death anxiety is by deluding ourselves that we know more about life and death than we actually do.

Today, the Malaysian government made an announcement that they now firmly believe Flight 370 crashed into the southern Indian Ocean some 1500 miles off the western coast of Australia. Some mystery remains. We still don't know what caused this crash. Catastrophic mechanical failure? Hijacking? Sabotage? Suicide? But despite the almost insurmountable task of determining what happened, we can count on the fact that the compelling human need to know, understand and make some meaning of such devastating events will drive us to doggedly pursue and ultimately likely uncover the cause of this tragedy, even at risk to life and limb. To solve this mystery at all costs.

There will always be mysteries. We are reminded as a result of the exhaustive search effort for the ill-fated Flight 370, for example, that much of the remote Indian Ocean floor at the suspected crash site, miles deep in some parts, is still totally unknown and unexplored, not unlike the dark side of the moon. We live in an unfathomable, mysterious, dangerous, beautiful, majestic and often incomprehensible cosmos. For some, it is these mysteries in life that make human existence interesting, rich, and inspire a sense of wonder and awe. Such individuals embrace and even celebrate or revel in the profound mysteries of existence. In the suspense of not knowing. They accept life's impenetrable mysteriousness, even absurdity or seeming senselessness, without insisting on trying to explain it away. But, for most of us, mysteries like the fate of Flight 370 are something that cry out to be solved. And for the tormented families and friends of those on board, now presumed dead, no solution short of specifically identified debris from the wreckage or seeing the lifeless body of their loved one will bring closure to this nightmarish mystery. Grainy, Rorschach-like satellite images from space simply won't suffice.