Making Meaning in Life
Is Life Meaningless?
Even though I sometimes suffer from depression, and even though it’s really cool and popular it seems to say “life is meaningless”, I don’t believe that it is. I just believe that a whole lot of people struggle to make their own meaning in life. Asking a question like “what is the meaning in life?”, is saying, “what is good enough about life that makes it valuable?”. For some people, their life simply involves too much pain and suffering for the good to outweigh the bad, and they become very depressed, and some of those people commit suicide. This is unfortunate. But if you really try to see the suicidal person’s perspective, the simple reason most of them feel that way is because they think that the negatives in life outweigh the positive. That makes them question their beliefs and wonder if life is even worth living, if the precious moments of joy really make up for the boredom, struggle, unpleasantness, pain, indignity, hopelessness, low self-esteem, or whatever negative things they’re feeling.
The Quest for Happiness
But maybe it’s not about balancing scales. Maybe happiness seems rare and fleeting now, but will become a peaceful and stable contentedness in life later. Maybe there is a value in life that is greater than the sum of happiness weighed against the sum of suffering. Maybe the happiness is made all the more satisfying by the fact that it’s hard to obtain. Maybe the happiness lies in the quest for happiness, in the journey, not the destination. What I think is that people have the power to create their own meaning in life, to forge their own destinies. That’s why political liberty is so important. The founding fathers of this country knew that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were all essential parts of the human experience.
What if It Is Meaningless?
How do we define the meaning of life? How do we create our own meaning in life or find our own happiness? Let’s assume for a minute the nay-sayers are right and life is meaningless and every human action is futile. If that were true, there is no reason to have laws that guard any human rights at all, whether it be freedom of speech or simply the right to not be stabbed and left to rot in a ditch. There is no reason for anyone to care about anything or anyone. Would I visit my mother in the hospital? No. Would I form a strong opinion one way or the other about the latest political drama? No. If life were truly meaningless, no rational person should ever be anything but selfish in the extreme, acting on animal instinct and basic pragmatism, only ever acting on one’s own behalf for one’s own pleasure or to help people for reciprocal benefits. Why get upset about a plane crash on the news? Life is meaningless. All those people are being spared the inherent, inescapable, existential pain of living by dying earlier than nature normally assigns. If anything, shouldn’t the plane crash be celebrated, then, if life is truly meaningless?
Meaning Comes From Other People
Human life has a value, to other humans. We are a social animal. We are an animal that got its start as nomadic pack hunters, sharing mammoth meat around a big open fire, where families gathered to sing songs and tell stories and eat, drink, and be merry: together. We evolved to cooperate and live with other people. That’s where the meaning in life comes from. It comes from us. You help give meaning to the lives of others, and they help give meaning to you. The reason people think life is meaningless is because they’re too much focusing on themselves as if they were islands, but no one is an island. We’re all connected to someone.
So the value of human life comes from human society in general. To apply that to your specific life, you just need to think about who is most important to you. If you’re distant from family or friends, rekindle old relationships or start new ones. In Genesis, Eve was created when God said “it is not good for man to be alone”. Without other people, life could not be valued. Your art would go unseen. Your words would go unread and unheard. Your potential would go nowhere. We would just be a mindless animal. So, you don’t have to go to India or Africa or some other exotic location to “find your mojo” and discover your purpose in life. People important to you, and to whom you are important, are probably right there in your own neighborhood. And if you feel totally isolated, because let’s face it, isolation is the curse of modern culture, that just means you need to reach out to people. If you have toxic relationships, you need to ditch them. If you have relationships with issues, fix them.
Finding Meaning by Connecting
But too often these days we have people rejecting friendship, family, and romantic attachment in favor of becoming workaholic cubicle drones. That might be what the business world likes, but it’s not psychologically healthy. I firmly believe that life gives life meaning, like how one candle can light the wick of another.
If you think everything you’re doing seems pointless, maybe it’s because the people being affected by what you do are remote and distant so that you don’t see the effect your work and your actions have. It’s an issue with a global capitalist society, and in a tech-focused economy where people specialize in very narrow niches, and interact with people in a remote, distant way but never really get to know them. To me, existentialism, nihilism, absurdism, etc. are all symptoms of a disease of social detachment caused by the era of social networks. Who wouldn’t be depressed to think that they get X number of “likes” on their picture of their margarita when none of those people would come to their bridal shower? We’re living in an era where corporations sell us on a fake idea of friendship that our minds know deep down is not authentic and does not meet our needs as social animals. Depression is now the “common cold” of mental illness, and lagging not far behind statistically is anxiety. We’re all sad and scared and stressed. That’s because we’re alone. We might be interacting, but nobody’s really connecting. Your search for meaning will end when you find out who you can truly connect to.
Human value has no intrinsic meaning, but it does have the meaning other human beings give to it. I think Sartre and other Western philosophers are too individual-centered to notice that human beings get their meaning in life through relationships, whether these are with close friends (the Greek ideal of a loving but not sexual friendship, a meeting of like minds), family, or romantic partners. We help other people reach their potential, we add value to our lives and they enrich our lives and help us in return. The reason people are so miserable right now is because they're interacting in a fake, superficial way with a lot of people all around the world, but what's truly best for the human brain is to form deep, intimate, closely attached relationships with fewer people. So if you're wondering what you can do to find meaning in life, maybe think for a second about your relationships with other people. Are any of them toxic or damaging? Are any of them up and down and in need of maybe counseling? Or maybe you just haven't communicated that much and need to reconnect. People's unhappiness these days is primarily driven by their lack of connection, ironically enough in a digital age. So connect. Your meaning will come from your interactions with others. That's how you find belonging, security, purpose, identity, and happiness. Not by going to an expensive therapist, not by climbing a mountain, not by going to a fancy yoga retreat. Unless, it just so happens that the therapist-client relationship ends up being beneficial, or you make a friend who turns into a close personal friend in your climbing group or at the yoga retreat. But I think the best place to start is to work on your existing relationships before trying to start new ones.
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