Look­ing for mean­ing

Do we – the Baby Boomers, the Gen-Xers and -Yers, the Mil­len­ni­als – do too much think­ing and not enough do­ing?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sandy Clarke Sandy Clarke has long held an in­ter­est in emo­tions, men­tal health, mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion. He be­lieves the more we un­der­stand our­selves and each other, the bet­ter so­ci­eties we can cre­ate. If you have any ques­tions or

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.

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