What does it mean to be human? Yes, there are easily identifiable answers such as being mammal, bipedal, social, creative, emotional, rational, yet the truly unique feature is the mind and, in particularly, the distinct Homo sapiens sapiens trait of questioning our own existence. Endowed with the highest degree of consciousness known (Aliens pending), 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. A thousand-thousand religions have claimed to have found the answer, however in our secular world the supposed solution is hardly digestible. Perhaps we have been looking at the question all wrong, maybe the wording has ushered humanity 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 existence is defined by the decisions we make and, once acutely aware of this, anxiety spies the jugular. He believed observation of the world was tainted to the degree of one’s reckoning, proclaiming life to have no inherit meaning or value other than what we choose to colour it with. This view is compatible with the scientific community, understanding human existence to be a contingent concatenation of events leading to the evolution of our invasive 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, or even fantasy squad. “Moses’ waterwall commands the back-half, but Marx manufactures a feeding factory at centre-mid, and Lao Tsu curves the ball in on a whisper… Tough choice.”
The unknown can be frightening and being offered an all-encompassing solution is comforting, but it also limits idiosyncratic thought. It may be daunting to contemplate our onus to individually define our existence, however isn’t more alarming to believe we all must live according to the same objective? Or that the chance to improve your life is going begging because you avoid being turned on to alternate thought?
Different strokes people, different stokes.
The notion since the dawn of our species every human has been allotted the same life meaning is as easy to defend as the assertion, “There aren’t any other forms of life in the universe”. There are approximately 300 million habitable planets in our solar system, and at least 100 billion galaxies in our universe….
The Significance of Meaning
If the meaning of life is individually defined how important is it to engrain oneself with purpose? Is there a flame one feels within when our life has meaning? Can meaning be found anywhere? There’s no better man to explore these questions with than the humble 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 lighting their final cigarette (a poignant sign of loss of hope) and those persevering through egregious brutality was a conscious intent towards 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. Frankl and fellow survivors exemplified Nietzsche’s famed 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 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.
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”. One can interpret this as fuelling our own perception with knowledge, yet another can hear a call to burn brightly so others can share luminosity. It doesn’t have to be either/or when there’s always an option for and/or.
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 former self-satisfying approach 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 hiding nuts. With the latter 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. But how to cultivate meaning? It’s something that sprouts organically and cannot be forced, however a sure-fire way to feel purposeful is to offer one’s time to another.
Image source: Mercatornet, Michael Cook