It’s the question that is as old as time itself. Ever since humans have been cognizant of their own existence, noblemen with their cognac, philosophers with the cigars, scholars in their libraries, beggars in the depths of their despair and students over bottles of cheap wine have asked the question:
Why are we here? Or in the case of the individual, why am I here?
It’s the penultimate question of existence that most people ask themselves at some point. Some from an early age, others only as they near the abyss of death. Some only in passing, others as their life’s mission.
It’s an extremely complex and deep question – hardly something that could be covered in a blog post.
It’s even too deep for two blog posts. (I know!!)
Nonetheless, I am going to split this into two parts to at least get the context of what I am talking about across in an effective way. Next week, I will be writing about finding your passion, which seems to be the second-most-frequently-asked question after the meaning of life, and as I will share, the two are intrinsically linked.
But first, I want to explore the concept of life having a “meaning”, and the discoveries that I made in my own life.
I have personally explored the question very deeply through various stages of my life.
Of course, I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do believe that I have reached some conclusions that may be of help to you in your own quest to answer this monumental question.
I first started exploring the topic when I was in my mid-teens and moving away from religion – specifically, Christianity. I had been raised with religion. Therefore, the meaning of life was to rescue as many other people from their inevitable eternal damnation so that they could join us illuminated ones in paradise.
But I think that religion itself is adhered to in many cases because people want to answer the question by saying that we are here to serve a greater consciousness, slap the lid on the discomfort of the question, and move on with their lives.
That’s the easy, temporary fix.
By temporary, I mean that I had no greater assurance that God existed than why I was here. It was slapping one uncertainty onto another as a mental band-aid.
And so began my adventure.
Well, if you can call it an adventure, because I don’t know if a few months of intense reading and academic inquiry counts, because I reached my first conclusion very quickly.
There is no real meaning to life.
I just couldn’t find any extrinsic, all-encompassing reason that we were all here. We weren’t born into the world knowing that our purpose was to do X or Y. I looked at very elderly people and the way that most of them seemed content and peaceful, despite the fact that in a few meagre years, they would be worm food.
Any memory or possession that they had gained meant nothing. Any achievement or accolade that they had earned would soon be forgotten.
Since I had moved on from the idea of an all-knowing being who had mapped out a plan for me, I was coming around to the idea that we didn’t all go to the land of rainbows and butterflies when we died, so I didn’t see the point.
And so began a stage of hopelessness. If it was all going to mean nothing in the end, what was the point of living another day? It was a dark time for me, but something nagged at me. There was something keeping all of these oldies happy, right?
After all, they couldn’t all be senile. Surely, they couldn’t all have ignored the question of what the meaning of life is.
There had to be more to it.
And there was.
It took me a lot longer to move through this phase of my life. I didn’t really understand what the meaning was, but if I was here, I wanted to achieve everything that I could. I went to university and decided to make it my life’s goal to accumulate as much material wealth in my life as I possibly could.
Maybe that was the answer?
Sure, as the conventional wisdom goes, money can’t buy you happiness or meaning, but maybe having a mansion and a Ferrari could plug the gap.
Does that mask a lack of meaning? I don’t know. But if you want to give me a mansion and a Ferrari, I would be happy to let you know.
The concept that there was something deeper to be known kept me going. It wasn’t until much, much later, in fact, only a few years ago at the time of writing, that I discovered the next key truth.
By now, I had realized that there was no single, all-encompassing meaning to life. There was no omnipotent being who could give meaning to my existence, but:
There can be significance even in the absence of extrinsic meaning.
That might sound nice and flowery, but what does it actually mean?
Let’s focus on the idea of significance, first of all.
Take for example the Christian cross. Objectively, it is a meaningless symbol – just a vertical stick and a horizontal stick. But to a Christian, the significance that they give to it makes it a symbol of their faith, while others apply the significance that it represents the intersection between our horizontal, animalistic nature and our vertical, intellectual nature.
But neither is right and neither is wrong – they just mean different things based on the significance given to them. Without significance, it is just two sticks.
Even the swastika, which in the modern world represents Nazism, fascism and all things evil, was taken from Hinduism and other Eastern ideologies, where it signified the four directions of the world – a perfectly benign sentiment. The only difference is the significance that is applied to each. Without significance, it is just a symbol.
But people will tell you that the cross means “Christianity” or the swastika means “Nazism” or “hate”.
That meaning, or representation, only exists because of the intrinsic meaning that an individual places upon it, based on what they have been taught or experienced.
That is how meaning is created. Not fake, extrinsic meaning that is bestowed to you as a mere mortal under the shimmering glow of angelic beings. We’ve established that doesn’t exist.
Real, intrinsic meaning is created by the individual based on what they give significance to.
You create your own meaning in life through the things that you give significance to. For some people, that is strength training or a sport. For some people, it is collecting stamps. For many people, it is enriching the lives of their family and friends. For some, it could be amassing wealth.
The key thing is that it is your own intrinsic meaning and what you choose to give significance to. It is not an extrinsic, universal phenomenon, and therefore, there can’t be a right and a wrong. No one can tell you that your own meaning of life is not valid. It would be like telling someone that their favourite colour isn’t red.
In the same way as it would be asinine to attribute those who used the swastika in its original form as condoning fascism, it is important to understand that different individuals will apply different significance to ideas.
Even if you give significance to your religion, as long as you are doing it from the depths of your being and not out of fear of the unknown, your life will have great significance.
In the same way as the individual follows a unique path to discovering what is deserving of significance to him or herself, not everyone has to share your passion, or the thing that gives meaning to your life.
That would be like living in a world where eveyone’s favourite colour is red. It would be dull and homogeneous if we all shared the same meaning of life.
So that leads to the obvious question that I see asked nearly as much as solving the enigma of life having a meaning: How do I find my passion?
Let’s explore that in next week’s post. I will talk about how as your passions, the things to which you offer significance, change over time, your very meaning of life will change.
In the meantime, what do you give significance to? What are your passions and priorities? What draws your energy through your focused attention?
For better or worse, these things collectively form what is as close to a meaning of life that I have observed.
Do the things that you give significance to deserve to be your meaning of life?