It’s perhaps an overly simple question, and yet it’s the most fundamental: what do I think is the meaning of life? I do believe that if we didn’t have some working conceptual answer for this question, we wouldn’t bother getting out of bed. Why bother if you had no reason—life’s too hard, people are too difficult, our fears and oftentimes basic upkeep is such a hassle, it’d seem just as useful to be non-existent than it would to continue the trail of tears that is our life. And yet, very few of us percentage-wise abnegate life. We choose it consistently, often in the face of profoundly difficult circumstances: we endure wars, abuse from those around us, disease, depression and many other things that should convince us that life just isn’t worth the time.
I’m going to make a leap and say that it is a personal sense of meaning that keeps us going—we feel a need to do something in the world that perhaps no one else can do; this motivation can compel us to keep on in the darkest of times. One of the greatest tomes toward this phenomenon is Victor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was an Austrian psychologist who was shifted from one concentration camp to the next (somewhere around 4-5 by the time the war ended). He went in and did something remarkable: he observed human behavior. He noted what separated those who were able to endure the harshest conceivable living situations, and those who gave up (an understandable sentiment given the situation).
I won’t ruin the ending by summarizing Frankl’s conclusions. I will propose that Frankl was given a rare opportunity: to really look at life at its most stripped down. All but the barest of worldly pleasures were taken away from him. He was shoved to the edge of death and he had the wherewithal to ask, “what is this all for?”
Most of us thankfully don’t get the opportunity Frankl did. We walk around thinking we will live forever until we experience some health problems, then we start thinking about what this life means and how we might use our time better. Unfortunately for most of us, by that time, we’ve cultivated a lifetime of habits that are informed by a lack of urgency. We don’t know what to do with our lives.
The question, “what is the meaning of my life,” is, in a sense, a childish question. When life is new, we are unapologetically naïve about the nature of reality. We wonder what happens when people die, why people go hungry and how babies are made. Eventually, our naiveté is supplanted with answers; sometimes, like in the case of the whole baby thing, those answers are valid ones. Other times, like the whole meaning of life thing, those answers are neither clear nor correct.
It is my contention that most people are walking around with little idea about why they are alive. They stopped asking the question, or they adopted someone else’s answer. Maybe we were told it is was a silly question. Maybe, as children, we thought that because the adults weren’t asking the question anymore, that they had found the answer, and that answer was embodied in their behavior. So instead of continuing to ask, we emulated.
I believe it is a human’s most critical task to answer the question, in his or her own words and deeds, “What is the meaning of my life?”
There are many people providing answers to this most fundamental question, and many of those answers are quite valid in my experience (we are not the first to tread this path of human existence). But the answers of others will always be incomplete with a firsthand, empirically derived testimony—I believe the same thing because I did the same thing.
I am not a prophet, so I will not answer the question. I will however ask the question. Over the next couple weeks, I will ask people (and ask others to ask), “What is the meaning of your life?”
It is my aim to bring meaning to my life by asking others to think about meaning in their lives. With that, here are a few of my initial queries (mine first). More later.