Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Meaning of Life

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the search for meaning is that it exists at all. Meaning as a requirement for existence is absent in nature. Animals seem satisfied with the never ending quest for food and pleasure; human beings are unique in their search for the “why” of it all. Why is it so hard for us to find satisfaction in the knowledge that we exist? Perhaps we have sought so fervently because we know just enough to allow for the possibility of more; so our intelligence has proven to be a hurdle as much as it is beneficial. I suspect this is the concept that the author of the Adam and Eve story was attempting to capture when he caused his characters to eat from a tree that imparted the knowledge of good and evil to them. It's our intellect that's caused us, uniquely among life on earth, to distinguish between animalistic tendencies and a higher calling; but if there's no higher being calling us, could it be our own understanding of our potential at a primal, unconscious level that drives us to ask the question, “Why?”

No longer does mere procreation and food gathering serve to satisfy our desire for meaning. That would be like using a supercomputer as a piece of furniture. We expect more from ourselves and society, and with no god to provide artificial significance and no afterlife to assure us more will arrive, we are suddenly forced to create more. What that creation looks like depends entirely on the individual, but from the writings of wise men throughout history, the testimonies of others alive today, and my own experiences, I can write of three primary categories of existential meaning: social activity, personal fulfillment, and discovery.

Social activity includes any interaction between human beings. We find happiness in helping others, because we understand at a deep level that the true potential of the human race has never rested on the shoulders of any one man or woman; it is the accomplishments we make as a whole that are catapulting us to a celestial status when compared to other species on this planet. So, we find meaning by encouraging society to progress, either by helping others or performing our vocations well. The latter might be more difficult for someone whose job seems trivial, but in a free and democratic society, which all societies should strive to be, there is nothing preventing anyone from planning and reaching towards a more fulfilling vocation. Of course, the most stable source of fulfillment is found in the very act of contributing to society using a skill set that takes advantage of an individual’s strengths - not in the type of contribution; but I must confess to being far from such a state of Zen.

Personal fulfillment is fairly self-explanatory. If we seek out that which pleases us without debilitating ourselves in the process, we will find our time on earth to be more enjoyable, and therefore the sweet pang of existence will be more manageable. This isn’t a requirement for meaning; rather, it is a helpful tool for leading a fulfilled life. Rarely does one need to convince another to seek happiness in this way. More often that not, the challenge is in understanding that it is only a limited source of meaning.

Another vast source of social meaning is procreation. On a purely sexual level, this falls under the category of personal fulfillment, but in relation to family, it can be fulfilling beyond measure. In fact, there are those who seem to live only to create more life, and they appear to be content on a deeper level than those with money and power. I believe this is in part due to the natural provision of an existential Other through mutual respect, trust, and love - perhaps the one force of nature that transcends reason and science - inherent in healthy lifelong partnerships.

Love often results in offspring. Children permit humans to project themselves into the future through genetics, as well as the passing on of valuable information and skills - perhaps even cheating death on some small level. These tendencies are biologically hardwired into us as a way of ensuring our survival as a species, but given the intricacies of our brains, it's no wonder our familial functions have evolved to bewildering complexity. As with personal fulfillment, the biggest danger in regards to procreation is the tendency for those to forget that we must find meaning outside of it in order to live a balanced, healthy life. In short, social fulfillment allows us to find meaning in you, me, and the space between.

One of the most profound moments in the journey of life is the realization that there is no destination. Typically, there is no career, significant other, or cause that will provide true, lasting happiness. Fulfillment is subjective, but I and many others have found that it thrives in balance and harmony. A life spent carousing will fail to provide substantive long-term relationships or profundity. A life spent at home studying or at work being productive will be lonely. An impoverished life will often be full of strife. A life in exorbitant wealth will often be characterized by arrogance and a lack of discipline. However, a life lived in the center of all these will provide fulfillment. This, of course, is a matter of opinion, but one that is shared by many of the wisest people in the world’s most accepted worldviews, regardless of their reasoning. It's also frequently tested and found to be true, as it's difficult to base one’s entire life on the observation of others, however consistent the results appear to be from the outside. The important thing to remember is that these kinds of truths are not absolute. They will vary on an individual basis, and because there's no higher power providing us with a manual for existence, we're free to explore morality and determine from experience or the examples of others what thoughts and behaviors are beneficial, distinguishing them from those that are not.

Meaning is found to be more urgent and poignant without an omnipotent, omniscient dictator - even without an afterlife. Suddenly, it is up to us to seek it out, to give our lives context, to fulfill our own desires. The possibilities are limitless, and we are free to explore them. This is exhilarating, and can allow people to experience an enhanced version of life, in contrast to one held back by religious dogma plucked out of thin air by well-meaning theologians over thousands of years. With no afterlife, a sense of urgency arrives; coupled with the understanding that meaning is waiting to be discovered, the result is a desire to immediately get off the couch and make life happen!

On a societal level, discovery is the proverbial carrot in front of our noses, convincing us to move onward, much like the concept of the afterlife, but tangible and real. The unknown beyond the reach of our watchtowers, submarines, and satellites gives us motivation to continue seeking, because we do not know what we might find. The final answers we seek may be waiting for us to discover them on the outer edge of the universe, at the center of the earth, or possibly even in our own minds. If we do not take up this tremendous task, who will?

As far as we know, we are the only beings in the universe who have the capacity to explore it. The same holds true for technology; there are untold possibilities in front of us in the technological field. Discoveries that add dimensions to our existence we never could have imagined may lie in wait just around the corner. Consider how social media has transformed our lives, making it possible for humanity to instantly communicate to one another from opposite ends of the earth, bringing us closer together and enabling us to exchange ideas globally on a worldwide marketplace. The Egyptian revolution was the result of such progression; in fact, it may never have occurred or even been successful without networks such as Facebook and Twitter, neither of which existed just a decade ago; that’s 10 years in the light of thousands of years! If we refuse to accept the calling of discovery, and there are no others who are capable of doing so, that could be the greatest tragedy the universe has ever known. While not everyone can be on the forefront, we can all take comfort in the knowledge that we are part of the most magnificent organism in the known universe: humanity. Every seemingly insignificant action is part of the whole, and the whole is possibly the greatest meaning there is. Perhaps we are the mechanism through which the universe will discover itself, and to be a part of that in any way is to experience profound, everlasting meaning.

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