- Religion and Philosophy
The Meaning of Life
A Neil Young song about a futile quest
A flawed question
While it is more than a bit cliché, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is an all-time classic. On many levels, however, this question also happens to be fundamentally flawed. Because of how the question is worded, it cannot be adequately answered.
By using the word “meaning” in the singular, the implication is that there is one basic truth that all humans must find in order to achieve true happiness and fulfillment. But when you consider the fact that we all have personality traits and experiences that are completely unique, it seems highly unlikely that we would all find fulfillment in exactly the same way. An idea or experience that is profound to one person might be meaningless or idiotic to someone else. And even when you are talking about a single individual, it is rather limiting to assume that ultimate meaning can only be found in one specific way. In my life, I have moments of transcendence and fulfillment through multiple experiences and activities: music, racquetball, sex, teaching, reading, writing, sex, strategy games, and hanging out with family or friends.
Now some would say that these profound or enjoyable moments are not what the ultimate question is all about. Finding ultimate meaning is not transitory, and it is a much more profound experience than a good game of racquetball. In this line of reasoning, life is like a game and the secret to the meaning of life is the prize achieved for winning. Or to use another analogy, the meaning of life is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And if you somehow acquire that precious secret, the sense of purpose or fulfillment never goes away. You have life figured out, and now it is all downhill.
In my humble opinion, people who claim to have figured everything out and achieved a state of permanent bliss are either fooling themselves or selling self-help books. In this world, as far as I can tell, there is no magic answer that you can permanently possess. Instead, all we have are those magic moments that can come from a variety of sources. And since most of us do not have the luxury to spend all of our time either pondering the meaning of existence or seeking out every experience imaginable, we have to find those moments in the day-to-day, mundane activities that make up the bulk of our lives. So if we play our cards right, we will experience incremental changes and fleeting moments that bring us to a state where we are wise, compassionate and joyful more often than we were before. In the end, there is no magical destination. The key is to make the most of the journey.
And to use one last analogy, it is helpful to think of life as our career. Some people spend their working lives dreaming of retirement, picturing those post-work years as the time when they will finally get the chance to enjoy themselves fully. Some are even willing to tolerate jobs that they hate in hopes of creating the perfect retirement. But there are two big problems with this approach to life. First, retirement might not be all that you dreamed, and second, you can end up wasting forty or so years of opportunities to enjoy your life while you were working and dreaming of retirement. Instead of fixating on that future retirement, it is important to find ways to enjoy the working years.
So if you started this hub hoping that I would somehow have an insight into the ultimate purpose in life, by now you should know that I do not, as usual, have anything close to an ultimate answer. All of us get the same opportunity to go out and find meaning in our own ways. My only big piece of advice is to not get too frustrated or disappointed when you fail to find the ultimate answer. If you figured everything out and lived in a state of perpetual bliss, things would be less interesting anyway. Plus, you would forget how to enjoy that state of bliss after a while. Magical moments of insight, joy, and transcendence are only magical because they contrast with the less pleasant moments in life. But that is a topic for another day.