The Meaning of Life

(When there are five Thursdays in a month, we are planning to feature a “classic” article from SNS’ early years on the fifth Thursday. Today’s article first appeared on August 13, 2015.)

The old question What is the Meaning of Life? has become something of a joke — not because it has been answered, but because it seems incapable of being answered. Below I attempt to address the question, though perhaps I only add to the joke.

Meaning and purpose always relate a part to a whole. A word has a meaning within a sentence, a spark plug has a purpose within a machine, a person has a purposeful or meaningful role within an organization, and so on.

When a person complains that his or her life seems to lacks a purpose, it usually means one of the following:

  1. We are not a part of a group or groups with significant goals or purpose;
  2. We are unhappy with our status within the groups to which we belong; or
  3. We do not sense an overriding coherence to the events of our life (our life is like a set of words that don’t add up to a coherent sentence).

From this brief sketch, I will assert the following: people who have a significant function in a variety of roles; who feel that they have a high level of status within groups that are important to them; and/or who have a sense that that their life is “on track”  – such people will seldom worry about or question the meaning of life. On the other hand, a person in the opposite situation is much more likely to be troubled by this question. This is to say that very often the problem of the meaning of life is really a form of anxiety over one’s lack of clear cut function, status, and goals. The question resolves, or disappears if the person enters a “meaningful” relationship, such as becoming a parent, finding a desirable job, gaining status, etc.

However, we still can imagine a person who says, “I have all the social benefits, a good job, a wonderful family, social status, etc, but I am deeply troubled because none of it seems to have any ultimate purpose.” Here the question moves from the purpose of one’s individual existence to the purpose of existence as a whole. By and large, people have looked to religion for such a cosmic purpose, though many people no longer find religious solutions tenable.

Christianity, at least at the popular level, tells us that existence on this earth is only something of a trial run, and that the real existence is in another realm only accessible after death.  In this view, we must live our life a certain way and hold certain beliefs to get to this real existence. This certainly does provide, for one who believes it, a clear idea of what the meaning of existence on earth is: live in such a way that you get to heaven. Presumably once we get to this other life, we will no longer be troubled by the meaning of existence. Most popular religions offer some sense of meaning or purpose to life, but most if not all suffer from the fact that you must believe un-provable and often absurd things in order to find that meaning.

For one who believes that his or her individual existence ends at death, what can be the meaning of existence? Many find meaning in trying to make the world a better place. This is a worthy idea, but how does one make a meaningless world a better place? To seek the elimination of human suffering is a noble goal. But note that people have always been willing to suffer a great deal for what they find meaningful. Suffering and meaning are not unrelated. There are many cases where people in very comfortable circumstances took their life due to the feeling that it was completely meaningless. To make the world a better place, perhaps we have to make it a meaningful place; if the only meaning we can find is in trying to make the world a better place, we are caught in a paradox.

To summarize a bit, when we think of meaning within a specific context, then the meaning or purpose of our life is to be found in how we fit into that context, and how that context fits into yet larger contexts. As a part of a family, a workplace, a community, I have a meaningful part to play in moving towards the accomplishment of objectives and goals meaningful to me and others. But when we get to the ultimate context, existence as a whole, then there is no further context that can give it meaning. My personal response to the question of meaning at this level is that existence is the meaning of existence, being the meaning of being. Beings like our selves can give meaning to the physical world; the physical world cannot give meaning to us. Life is not a means to something else, it is the end towards which all other means lead.

As humans, we can live a shallow life or a deep life, a narrow life or a broad life; we can live selfishly or generously, distractedly or with focus.  At the popular level, religion may lead people to believe that the goal of life is some form of afterlife; but at what might be called a more esoteric level, spirituality is often about living this life deeply and with focus. To be holy is not merely about being more or less sinful, but about living life wholly and completely. In these esoteric traditions, sin by definition is what keeps us from being whole.

The Universe has given us this brief moment of existence. Does it not make sense to try to life it wholly and completely?

What are these “esoteric traditions” mentioned above?  They are found in all major religions, though usually hidden. In Christianity we hear it in the statement that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” and find it most often in the writings of mystics and monks. The Taoist speak of living from the sense of mystery and wonder; Buddhists speak of Nirvana and Hindus of Samadhi.  These various experiences are all “unworldly,” if one means by “worldly” the normal economic, social and personal concerns of everyday life.  But they take place in this world, in this life.  They are the results of disciplines leading to a more focused, intentional, deep and compassionate way of being.  In the view of these traditions, if there is a life after this one, such discipline will prepare us well for it. If not, we will have lived this one well.

I was educated at a time when notions of existential angst and the Theater of the Absurd. Questions about the meaning of life we much in the air.  Even in the belief that life is the meaning of life, I cannot completely shake the feeling that there is something a bit absurd, a bit comical about it. But the spiritual traditions, and Taoism in particular, have given me a softer, more patient perspective on this sense of absurdity. Perhaps the ultimate end our existence is something of a sublime old joke, but if it is, I at least want to be attentive enough to catch the joke and share a laugh with the cosmos. Such a laugh has a way of taking the angst out of the existential and absurd.

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