Does Life’s Meaning Reside In Discovering Our Own Purpose?

What does it mean to be human? Obviously there are easily identifiable answers such as being mammals, bipedal, social, creative, yet, a truly unique feature making us distinctly human is the ability to question our own existence. Endowed with the highest degree of consciousness known, it’s only fitting we be curious creatures and seek to understand ourselves in relation to our environment.

A major part of placing ourselves with the sphere of existence is to ponder the timeless question, “What is the meaning of life?” Kings and peasants alike have muddle over the notion to no definitive response. Religions have claimed to find the answer, however, in our secular world the supposed solution is hardly compatible. Perhaps we have been looking at the question all wrong, maybe the wording has ushered us down a narrow path of inquiry. If we consider all humans to be individuals, is it possible life’s universal meaning is to uncover our own unique purpose?

Condemned To Be Free

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, human life is encapsulated by anguish because we are “Condemned to be free”, that our own existence is defined by the decisions we make and cognizance of this ensures anxiety. He believed observation of the world was tainted to the degree of one’s reckoning, supposing life to have no inherited meaning or value other than what we choose to denote it with.  This view is compatible with the scientific community, understanding human existence to be a contingent concatenation leading to the evolution of our species.

Although religious followers consider their view unquestionable, they are a vivid example of how life is moulded by imposed meaning; denoting one deity or prophet more significant than another is no less subjective than one’s choice in sporting team. 

The unknown can be frightening and being offered an all-encompassing solution is comforting, but it also limits uniqueness of thought. It can be daunting to contemplate that we must individually define our existence, however, is it not more alarming to believe we all must live according to the same objective?

The notion that since the dawn of our species every human has been allotted the same life meaning is difficult to defend; if it were so, would Homo sapiens be the diverse creatures we are today?

The Significance of Meaning

If the meaning of life is individually defined, how important is it for one to engrain their being with purpose? The significance of meaning is illuminated by the work of Dr. Viktor Frankl.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl recounts his time as a holocaust prisoner and his psychological work with other survivors in the war’s aftermath. What he noticed about those who lit their final cigarette (a poignant sign of loss of hope) and those preserved through egregious brutality was something to live for. Whether it was due to their family, religion, life’s work, desire to outlast the Nazi’s, those who enforced meaning on their existence dealt better with serve adversity; he emphasised Nietzsche’s words “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.  In the grand scheme of humanity there is no innate meaning for the atrocities of the holocaust, yet, prisoners who choice to define their existence become the conquerors of their subjugated fate.

Frankl went on to develop his own branch of psychotherapy, Logotherapy, based on his concept that the salient feature in one’s life is the will to discover meaning. An integral aspect of his work stressed the importance of our ability to select the outlook of any situation, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

His views interrelate with Sartre’s idea of being condemned to be free, although, altering its perception to view existential choice as the most significant instrument we have to define not only ourselves, but also our happiness.

Living Purposefully

So, how can we make our lives meaningful? Unfortunately, like the question of meaning itself, there is no definitive answer. Jung supposed, “As far as we can discern, the whole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being”. This can be taken as we must fuel our own perception, but also, try burn brightly so others can share some luminosity.

Although a subjective assumption, if there were one aim every human should strive towards it is to leave the world better than when it was found. This aim can be approached from two angles, to make life better for oneself or to improve the quality of life of others.

The self-satisfying approach of the former may make one’s life more comfortable, but, if one’s value is based on acquiring wealth their essence is no deeper than a frantic squirrel gathering and hiding nuts. With the latter, however, it not about how many nuts they can hoard but how many trees can grow from the seeds.

Making the world a better place doesn’t mean one has to change it, rather, to become a positive influence within. By nature we are egalitarian creatures and our deepest sense of meaning comes from being validated within our tribe, authentication coming from acting for the group’s benefit and not merely oneself.

In our individualistic society it can be hard not to put self interest first, yet, in offering time to another, one will come to realize that helping others is really helping oneself.

Milan Kundera wrote, “A question is like a knife which slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it”. When peering through the slit opened by “What is the meaning of life”, one will come to realize there is no universal meaning, and that our purpose is derived from what we inscribe into life. Without having meaning in our lives we are prone to fall into the existential vacuum, seeping into the void of nothingness. Meaning is something that organically spouts and cannot be forced, albeit, a sure-fire way to feel purposeful is to offer oneself to the help of another.

Image source: Mercatornet, Michael Cook

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