The curious case of Binjamin Wilkomirski (Part II)

Sometimes an identity of a person has so many elements or aspects that it is not always easy to tell what it is about that identity that contributes to the meaningfulness of the person’s life. We have seen that it was by seeing himself as Wilkomirski the sufferer-survivor-reporter that Grosjean found meaning in his life. The fact that he was not really the sufferer or the survivor implies that he was not a genuine reporter either ¾ something that did not take place could not be reported. Yes, Grosjean was still the author of the book, but this was not an element of the identity in question that could contribute to the meaningfulness of his life, for the book was not what it was supposed to be. By contrast, if Grosjean’s book had been published as a novel, then his identity as the author of the book could have contributed to the meaningfulness of his life.

Grosjean’s case reminds me of a friend who is a devoted Christian minister, who presumably believes that his life is meaningful by virtue of his identity as a Christian minister, or, in his own words, as God’s servant. Let us imagine that in the last few years of his life he became skeptical about his religious beliefs and finally gave them up (this is, I have to say, extremely unlikely to happen). Suppose there were no other identities he identified himself with; should he then believe that his life was meaningless? It depends. On the one hand, he had to say that since there is no God, no one can be God’s servant. On the other hand, there might be other elements in his identity as a Christian minister that could contribute to the meaningfulness of his life. For example, he might have, in his capacity as a minister, helped a lot of people deal with their personal problems. If he himself valued this element of his identity as a minister, and other people valued it too, then his life could still be meaningful by virtue of his identity as a Christian minister.

It is risky to focus on one single identity in such a way that the meaningfulness of your life depends solely on it. If you have only one identity that you think makes your life meaningful, and if something goes wrong with respect to that identity, such as if you actually have a serious misunderstanding of the nature of that identity, or if you suddenly do not value it any more, your life may turn out to be meaningless. Grosjean’s is a case in point. If all goes well, then one identity will suffice; but things do not always go well. Although not all our identities are chosen by us, some are. It is thus wise, as far as the meaningfulness of our lives is concerned, to develop what psychologist Daniel Nettle calls ‘self-complexity’. As Nettle explains, “if I am just an academic, and I have an academic setback, then my whole self seems less efficacious and worthwhile. However, if I have many other facets to myself, then the effect of the setback on my identity is much less severe” (Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, p.156). He speaks in the context of discussing happiness, but it is clear that the same point applies to meaningfulness.

The above point about self-complexity may give us some ideas about how to live a meaningful life. This may also be true of the final point I would like to make, which is that a meaningful life consists in living it rather than in thinking about how to live it. Part of Grosjean’s problem might be that he was too much aware of the problem of meaningfulness and tried too hard to make his life meaningful. There is such a thing as thinking too much and too often about the problem about meaningfulness. This may be what Wittgenstein means when he writes:
The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear. … a man who lives rightly won’t experience the problem as sorrow, so for him it will not be a problem, but a joy rather; in other words for him it will be a bright halo round his life, not a dubious background. (Culture and Value, p.27)