Looking for meaning
Do we – the Baby Boomers, the Gen-Xers and -Yers, the Millennials – do too much thinking and not enough doing?
HOW do you find purpose in life if you believe life is ultimately without meaning?
This was a question sent to me by a reader who describes himself/ herself as “a fatalist”. Fatalists are people who are submissive to life, believing that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable.
Intrigued more by the questioner than the question itself, I realised that what we think about life can differ completely from how we feel about it. Here we have someone who believes that life is entirely without meaning and yet he/she nevertheless yearns to find some purpose.
Notable 19th and 20th century thinkers such as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) believed that individuals above all else give meaning to life. This school of thought is known as Existentialism, which encourages us to live life with passion and authenticity.
In short, we are each responsible for the values we create through which we make sense of the world, and we are solely in charge of creating our life’s meaning.
Of the more recent existentialists, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) is perhaps one of the best-known, having written his famous book, Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), in which he writes, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
During World War II Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was arrested alongside his wife and parents in 1942 by Nazi soldiers, and was imprisoned for one year in 1944 at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. By the time of liberation in 1945, the only other surviving member of his immediate family was his sister.
Thanks to grace and good fortune, most of us will never know the horrors that Frankl and other Holocaust victims witnessed and suffered. Many of our lives are, for the most part, positive or at the very least comfortable. As a result, we have no experience of the kind of suffering that strongly calls for a sense of determination and the hope that there must a reason for everything and meaning behind what we endure.
Certainly, to suffer so much and for there to be no meaning to life whatsoever would surely be the most agonising of all suffering. If Frankl felt that life had no meaning, he might have given up hope and died in the camp. As many Holocaust survivors have acknowledged, the feeling that there remained a purpose to life is what kept them going.
But how do we, living in today’s relative comfort, find meaning in life if it all appears mundane and without purpose?
I sometime wonder if we in the younger generations do too much thinking and not enough doing. Thinking is a valuable tool, of course; however, living in a time when instant gratification and convenience abound can lead to spending too much time living in our heads at the expense of fully experiencing life.
In the days before the technological and social advances we now take for granted, people in general lived life more than they thought about how to live, partly because they didn’t have the luxuries that we enjoy today. In tough times, purpose is easier to find. Whether it’s finding ways to survive during the Great Depression or world wars, helping others, or educating future generations on history, humanity’s darkest hours have often presented meaningful insights that have helped to shape a brighter future.
Today, some might feel apathetic about an existence that appears to be a lot less exciting, and believe themselves to be part of a “lost generation”. However, life has never owed us meaning, although it has occasionally provided the circumstances through which meaning can be created. Finding purpose in life comes from an exploration of the challenges and opportunities that exist today – and it’s an exploration that has to be active rather than passive.
Talking so much about the meaning of life will only lead to tight jaws and sore heads. Instead, we should spend more time being with life and doing something with it. There is no end to the discoveries yet to be made, even if in our hubris we humans always like to believe there’s nothing new to find under the sun.
When even fatalists continue to wonder about life’s meaning, it shows that there’s something deep within all of us that recognises life as an exciting and precious gift filled with endless possibilities.
To wonder about why we exist can only take us so far. Perhaps our purpose in life is revealed through our interaction with it. After all, no significant discovery was ever made without eager minds and curious exploration.