What is the meaning of life?
That one question is not asked enough by each of us, nor is it likely to be acted upon. Big questions are kind of scary, and humans don't do well with such questions. But surely you have dared to wonder such a thing yourself? There is safety in numbers, so let's explore the answer together.
This article is the first in a series of essays on Aspirational Thinking.
From a purely biological perspective, the answer is simple. Live!
From a purely emotional perspective, pleasure and happiness are certainly important, but they are both fleeting in nature. What about all of the spaces in between?
From a spiritual perspective, there must be more than just existing, staying alive, reproducing, acquiring power and indulging in pleasure. There must be something bigger.
According to Deep Thought from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the answer may be "Forty-two." I say may, because the Ultimate Question was long forgotten before the answer was computed. Mathematicians certainly delight in the formalization of such mysteries, but for the rest of us, the answer rightly and justly depends on... the person you ask.
So let's do just that.
Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.
— Joseph Campbell
That was a stiff jab to the face, but perhaps Campbell is onto something here.
Life, from the perspective of inanimate objects like the lowly rock, are painfully uninteresting outside of a purely geological sense. Animals of all shapes and sizes make the subject vastly more interesting, but not in the spiritual sense. After all, most animals are not introspective. They obsess primarily over biological concerns in the struggle for survival.
At some point in our history, we humans separated from the pack and were afflicted... err... gifted with the time and inclination to explore the mysteries of life. I suppose it is in our very nature to do so, and whether by accident or by plan, here we are.
And so I think it safe to say that life truly acquires meaning when considered in the context of a unique, sentient, introspective being like you and me. Add billions more and you get a veritable symphony of meaning and purpose. As beautiful as that sounds, how do we each derive meaning? Where does it actually come from?
Insight 1: Life has meaning for those beings who have the ability to question its purpose.
Meaning can only ever exist within the confines of the human mind and in this way the meaning of life is not somewhere out there but right between our ears.
— Stephen Hawking
Clearly Hawking doesn't believe in one, unified meaning or purpose in life either. The answer lies within each of us, and we will find it between our ears — our brains to be more specific.
Well, that was quite an accomplishment. We managed to narrow our search to the human mind, with which most of us are well equipped. I suppose I could wax scientific at this point and describe our minds as actually a three-in-one deal: the lizard brain (the brain stem), the mammal brain (the midbrain) and the cerebral cortex; however, it is the third one that is of interest in answering our question.
Within the cerebral cortex and its relationship with the older brains lies human perception, which itself consists of the picture we form from our various senses combined with prior experience. The sensory signals of the former meld with our beliefs about what is possible from the latter in a sort of probabilistic inference engine. This perception of ourselves and the world around us is highly dynamic and nearly limitless in its possibilities.
Insight 2: Human perception is the foundation of meaning and purpose.
Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.
— Viktor Frankl
I would be remiss in not pointing out the gravity of Frankl's words juxtaposed with his own experience in Nazi death camps. This experience, recounted with sobering clarity in Man's Search for Meaning, is a stark reminder that when human beings are stripped of all worldly possessions, identity and even dignity, they remain free with regard to perception and reaction. The Stoic maxim of focusing on what is within your control and not what is outside of your control holds especially true here, in the darkest depths of the human experience.
Against that backdrop, Frankl gets us closer to the meaning of life by describing the nature and resilience of mankind. Human beings have the capacity to decide who they will be at any given moment. This capacity starts as perception and proceeds as action. Each action and its effect adds to experience and further solidifies identity, meaning and purpose.
This cannot happen without the freedom to explore the world around us, to ask questions, to experiment, to fail, to learn and to ultimately understand in so doing. What a tremendous, even magical gift, this free will we have been blessed with. Indeed, it is free will that empowers all of us to take ownership of our lives at any point and become someone else.
Insight 3: We find meaning in life by first living it.
It is not what we get. But who we become, what we contribute... that gives meaning to our lives.
— Tony Robbins
In a sense, human beings are like lumps of clay, shaped by experiences. We each start life by imitating those closest to us — first family, followed by friends and community. We dream from an early age about what we want to become, but the necessities of life soon crowd out such thoughts and we tend to just coast along, reacting to what life throws at us. We forget that we have the power, the free will, to affect change. We forget what children innately understand, and it is this... We decide who we will become, and in so doing, we determine our own meaning and purpose in life.
So, what is the meaning of life? It is what we want it to be. Is it who we want to be.
Meaning is one thing. What about purpose? I argue that simply living the life of this new person is purpose enough, because in so doing, you share what you do best with family, friends, community and even the world. And speaking of the world, it is a much better place with that person in it.
Insight 4: We experience the meaning of life by first becoming who we decide to be. We then experience purpose by sharing our gifts with others.
Well, we did it. We discovered the meaning of life — together! Now what?
What remains is the ultimate life quest. Regardless of age and circumstance, your very own meaning of life begins with another, more direct question.