This question about the meaning of life might strike you first of all as a bit silly. After all, the world is just what it is. ‘We live and then we die. When we’re dead, we’re dead.’ I might be fascinated by what things go on in my life, but not see any deeper significance or meaning in them.
Yet some people become quite dispirited about the notion that life is meaningless. One such person was a major figure of 20th-century literature Franz Kafka. For example in his novel ‘The Trial’, the idea of justice becomes elusive and leaks away. The accused is never even told what his crime is supposed to be. The concept of fairness no longer adds up to anything meaningful.
But is it true that existence itself really adds up to nothing? If there is any point to being alive, what might it be? What do you live for?
Individual differences and meaning of life
Clearly, we each find different things interesting, pleasurable, or fulfilling. Consequently, I like writing, she enjoys sport, he organising parties. But do any of the things we like have sufficient importance to inspire our life with meaning? To motivate us to get out of bed in the morning with a spring in the step, to keep us going during hard times without giving up, to provide a meaningful purpose for what we do?
Some of our motives do, and some don’t, connect together. You might want to decide which delight of your life is paramount and gives it the most meaning. Take your pick.
Pleasure as meaning of life
Do we live mainly for pleasure? For instance the excitement of the latest sexual encounter, downing an extra glass, having a good laugh or living like there is no tomorrow.
Power as meaning of life
Getting one’s own way may be a major interest. That is to say, it doesn’t matter what the issue is: just feeling in charge and dominating the situation may be what turns us on. Whether it be in the home or work context. So, we might want to get to the top of an organisation to rule the roost. Alternatively, as a middle manager, ensuring subordinates agree with our ideas and carry out our instructions to the letter.
Social status as meaning of life
It is difficult to forget about money. Some of us think too much about it. How to get more. Being preoccupied with planning a promotion or a better paid job or a loan. All for the sake of buying smart clothes so as to look good, an expensive car so as to impress, or a home in a high status neighbourhood others might admire.
“There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our ‘if onlies.’ ” (Joko Beck, American Zen teacher)
Communicating socially and enjoying time with friends can be central to our life. What is most meaningful might be the warm glow and emotional security of personal intimacy. Important are family occasions, romantic time with partner, or just sharing the ordinary chores of life in the context of a mutually caring relationship.
“Being a mom makes me feel whole and like I understand the meaning of life.” (Rebecca Romijn, American actress)
A social cause as meaning of life
For some the most important thing in their life is promoting some social cause. Being active members of, for example, an ecological, social justice, or political movement might give life its paramount meaning and purpose. Fighting in what they see as a ‘just war’ may be one worth dying for.
Improving one’s state of mind
Responding to self-insight could be what gives life its meaning. Being honest with oneself and being kind to oneself may be an important focus. This entails an openness to one’s weaknesses and strengths and not engaging in self-deception. When cultivating this state of mind, life is seen as a personal challenge. Whatever the external circumstances might be one sees a chance to become a changed person. One who experiences inner well-being, peace, and contentment.
Some people have a regular meditative or spiritual practice to help change their mind set. The focus could be on mindfully reacting to any events. In other words trying to emotionally distance one-self from attachments to things of the world. Not being affected by impulses of the moment. Not emotionally dependent on things going well all the time.
The ego and meaning of life
Here the central concern in life is spiritual transformation. It is based on an insight that there can be no deep meaning to life if we are continually self-orientated in what we see and do.
Instead, the person wishes to quieten their ego. This is practising self-restraint, and not putting self-interest first. Instead, being willing to give up one’s time for the sake of others. It is in line with the spiritual teaching of ‘agape’ found in the Christian gospel. Not a form of love based on what we can receive from someone but rather one of compassion for the benefit of those in need. Being a good Samaritan, love for the neighbour, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, welcoming the stranger.
“Mother Teresa was asked what was the meaning of life, and she said to help other people, and I thought, ‘What a strange thing to say’ – but maybe it’s the right thing to say.” (Jesse Eisenberg American actor, author and playwrite)
Terry Eagleton – a distinguished British literary theorist – has pointed out that, for numerous religious believers, the meaning of life is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who’. The way they see it is whatever they are trying to do for the good cannot be achieved on their own. For them it is more meaningful to pray and co-operate with, what they see, as the divine Being of love and wisdom. A transcendent power they find deep within consciousness as well as beyond human limitations.
It seems then that the meaning of life depends on who you are and what you want. Do you know what you live for?
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems