Theory of the Missing Piece

Theory of the Missing Piece

Originally published in the November 1977 issue of Senior Edition newspaper

There are two trends in contemporary life which lend our very human existence both its profoundly comic and tragic dimensions.

The first is our quite naive yet insistent hope that life will work out somewhat according to our expectations. Most of us (and I do not exclude myself from these reflections) spend the greater portion of our efforts in life trying to make things work out. We try to rearrange our lives to fit our image of what is required in our lives to afford us, at the minimum, a reasonable level of happiness. This is what we might call the Theory of the Missing Piece. For years I have been driven by the delusion that once I had the right relationship, once I had achieved a standard of living which reflected my refined sensibilities, and once I had achieved a sense of power with respect to my fellow men (and women…particularly women), then I might relinquish this constant struggle, which seems endemic to human existence, to enjoy the pleasant and carefree existence which I so obviously deserved.

Now the problem with the Theory of the Missing Piece is that there is always a missing piece. As soon as you find the missing piece it is no longer the missing piece but the missing piece is still there. Doubtless many of you are acquainted with at least one person who is still looking for the missing piece…and still believing, despite all the experience of his life to the contrary, that upon locating the missing piece his life will suddenly abound with a sense of deserved fulfillment.


Now the second trend in contemporary life which I alluded to beforehand is our insistence that life mean something. And not only that it mean something, but that its meaning be a concretized, antecedent of our existence which we only need to discover, or better yet be told, in order grasp its import.

Now I do not wish to diminish humankind’s quest to find meaning in existence. While the Theory of the Missing Piece affords a view of man in a most comic fashion, I find it profoundly tragic and disheartening that man searches for meaning in life and does not find it.

Is life meaningful? I have just finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. This remarkable man, whose father, mother, brother and wife perished in Nazi gas chambers, and who himself was subjected to the inhumanities of the Nazi concentration camps and survived, suggests that there is no meaning in life beyond our willingness to respond to that question.

“Ultimately,” Frankl writes, “man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”

Frankl writes movingly of the men who shared his almost hopeless existence in the death camps, and their struggle to give a meaning to their suffering that would make it bearable.

“We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

Let us digress for a moment.

What is optimistically called “human growth movement” in this country is closely allied with assumptions growing out of the trends which I have described. First, the human growth movement and its adherents subconsciously or consciously accept the Theory of the Missing Piece. The great majority of the mostly younger-generation growth movement disciples, who religiously pursue jogging, “right brain” therapy, and even more esoteric disciplines, are persuaded that theirs is the path to fulfillment, prosperity, and enlightenment.

While I am not immune to the seductions of these disciplines, nor ignorant of their very real benefits, I note with bemused despondency those people whose lives are lived out on the treadmill of  “getting their needs met.”

The contemporary youth culture (and it is by no means confined to the youth) has taken pleasure and “growth” and “self-realization” and happiness as goals to be achieved, if possible to be purchased in the marketplace, at little human cost. Yet through it all they remain troubled by the unsettling notion that their lives don’t mean anything. Even if they manage to fill in all the missing pieces they ask, “So what?”

The human growth movement and its adherents expect that, when the missing pieces are set in place, life will suddenly develop a meaning and a significance and a purpose which it heretofore lacked. When this doesn’t happen, and when they pause between running from jogging class to their assorted growth groups, I suspect they often experience a profound disappointment with their lives.

True human growth is related to a larger purpose than self-aggrandizement, in all its forms. Those who seek pleasure, “growth,” “self-realization,” and happiness for their own sake are succumbing to the world’s oldest con game. The price is their lives.

Victor Frankl’s message is that our lives can have no meaning if they are self-contained. The miracle of being human ultimately has to do with the ability to transcend ourselves. True satisfaction and spiritual growth are by-products of this act of transcendence, and will forever elude those who seek them directly.

If life has no meaning then we can look upon our lives as comic, without significance, and how we choose to live our lives is a question itself devoid of meaning. If life has meaning, then the question does matter, and the view of life as comic is itself tragic.

The interesting part of our life is that we are forced to make a choice.

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