05/21/2014 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Searching for Meaning Through Spiritual Memoirs and Autobiographies

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"Dad, is Santa real?" I asked as a 9-year-old in the back seat of my parents' car. "Well, bub, do you want the fun answer or the truth?" "The truth, Dad." He paused to think for a moment and then explained, "Santa is more of an idea than an actual person." Existential crises ensued as I began to question the existence of God, and I have been exploring major life questions ever since. As part of my search, I participated in a Buddhist immersion program at a monastery in Taiwan during the summer before my junior year of college, and I could not help but reflect on my life. I followed this experience by studying philosophy at the University of Oxford the next fall, where I examined identity, the existence of God, skepticism, perspectivism, objectivity and subjectivity, and Heidegger's existentialism.

Stephen Metcalf is from Ashland, Kentucky, and is graduating from Centre College in May 2014 with a degree in behavioral neuroscience and a minor in mathematics. He will pursue an MPhil in Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge beginning in the fall of 2014. This thesis project was funded by the John C. Young Program at Centre College.

Due in large part to these incredible experiences, I was ready to dive in head first for my thesis project. Under the guidance of Dr. Lee Jefferson, an assistant professor of religion at Centre College, I examined the spiritual journeys of prominent individuals from several different backgrounds: existentialism and the five major religious traditions, i.e. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Specifically, I read the works of the 14th Dalai Lama, Albert Camus, Dorothy Day, Viktor Frankl, Mohandas Gandhi, Janet Gyatso, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Radhanath Swami, Lena Winfrey Seder, Elie Wiesel and Malcolm X. Additionally, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton spent most of his adult life, and I interviewed a monk who was Merton's student for several years.

I analyzed the major themes of these individuals' memoirs and autobiographies in order to identify the fundamental similarities with regard to finding meaning. This is a constructive study based on thematic analysis. It is not a comparison of world religions; it is research into a universal human quest. Certain spiritual works become renowned because they go beyond particularity. The authors attempt to answer, or at least help others explore, some of life's most difficult questions by sharing their experiences. My aim was to identify and analyze the unifying themes among these works.

I took detailed notes on each work and then categorized each note according to a certain theme or themes using a grounded theory approach, which is discovery through analysis. I did my best to have no preconceived notions of themes before beginning the study. If a theme appeared in a majority of the works, I considered it a theme for this project. Fourteen themes emerged from the analysis: uncertainty and doubt, temporary secularism, faith, the influence of books, the influence of others, sex, sacrifice, suffering, death, loneliness, immersion, search for truth, turning point and humanity. My thesis discusses each of these themes, noting examples from the memoirs and autobiographies.

I learned something new and unique from each of the works I read. Seder reinforced for me that if I feel unhappy or unfulfilled with my given circumstances, I can change them. Malcolm X showed me a completely different side of the Civil Rights Movement and taught me to see the light in even the darkest of moments. Frankl encouraged me to continue searching for meaning because it will be the most fulfilling thing I can do with my life, and Wiesel reminded me to never forget about those people in the world who need help. Lewis taught me that the most impactful moments in my life may occur when I least expect them; Merton demonstrated that I can be uncertain about my life direction for large parts of my life and still make a difference in the world. Day strengthened my concern for the poor and helped with my feelings of guilt about being born with privilege, and Gandhi supported my efforts to seek truth in my own ways. While Radhanath Swami reinforced the idea that I can learn something from everyone, the Dalai Lama confirmed the importance of compassion. Lingpa, as translated by Gyatso, revealed that spontaneity in life can lead to unexpected purpose. Nietzsche emphasized the value of making my own way in the world, and Camus helped me acknowledge the significance of sharing love with myself as I do with others. A different person reading these works may learn lessons similar to the ones I did or may take away completely different ones. There has been so much to learn.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of my project was discovering that these figures are not just representatives of their religions; they are all human. They have gone through the same types of struggles that most all of us face. They overcame these hardships and found meaning in their lives. Many of the themes that emerged from the works provide evidence for this. As much as many of these great leaders may have prepared themselves and planned for the future, many of them "fell into" what they did by seeing a problem in the world and making an effort to change it. I have learned to not stress as much about the future and to experience life as a journey rather than a series of goals.

I entered this study with plenty of questions, and I am concluding it with many more. What should I do with my life in order to make a significantly positive difference in the world? Which is more important: truth or happiness? Is there an ultimate meaning to life, or do we choose meaning within our own lives? Although I have preliminary answers to these questions, I expect to continue exploring them throughout my life. Most of us experience questions pertaining to significance at some point in our lives. My hope is that this study will help people in their own journeys. If a person has yet to explore topics such as these, perhaps it will provoke curiosity and further analysis of the person's life. Within my own, an insight is developing: In considering my journey toward meaning thus far, I anticipate that meaning may in fact come from the journey itself.

--Stephen Metcalf

The HuffPost College Thesis Project gives students a chance to share with a wide audience the fruit of their hard academic work. The project is launching with about a dozen partner schools, which comprise students from public and private, two- and four-year colleges. To read all posts in the series, visit here.