Perhaps the deepest need of any human being is to have some sense of meaning for his or her life: “Why am I alive? Why do things happen as they do?” We can bear almost any experience if we feel that we can understand why we are having that experience. The German philosopher Nietzsche writes: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Meaninglessness is perhaps the most unbearable human experience. When there’s a tragic and unexpected event in someone’s life one of the very first questions asked is, “Why did this happen?” “What does it mean?”
Children who experience abuse or neglect will often blame themselves for their parent’s behavior because it’s the only explanation they have that gives meaning to what happened to them. Such is the depth of our human need for meaning.
Primal cultures developed myths and folklore to explain what has shaped their lives and their world. We moderns rely on science for most of our answers. Science is extraordinary adept at telling us how but it is unable to explain the why of things as they are.
With the demise of religion as a source of meaning in our culture we now find ourselves in a crisis of meaning. For many this leads to despair, nihilism and apathy. Many Americans have turned to entertainment and consumerism in a vain attempt to find meaning in their lives.
But meaning is something that we create; it is not inherent in the objective world. A particular tree can have meaning to us because of certain memories or experiences we’ve had with that tree; but a tree, in and of itself, has no inherent meaning. “A tree is a tree is a tree” (as is a rose).
Rather than trying to discover the meaning of life (or of any particular experience) it may be better to look at our state of mind from whence the search for meaning begins. When we are in a state of ecstasy do we look for the meaning of life? When we experience deep pleasure do we inquire into what that experience means? When we are satisfied with life we are seldom on a quest for meaning.
When do we look for meaning? Usually when we are dissatisfied or unhappy. We often look for the meaning of our suffering; but do we look for the meaning of our joy?
Not very often.
Why is this?
Well, when we experience pleasure, joy or satisfaction the experience is its own meaning. When we experience sorrow, pain or suffering it would seem that it isn’t. We look for a reason for our discontent. Believing perhaps that if we have a reason then we could bear what seems to be unbearable. (ala Nietzsche)
And, if we find a reason or meaning then perhaps it can help us to bear the load for a while. But it’s interesting to see that the search for meaning usually arises out of the feeling of dissatisfaction or aversion to our present experience.
When we experience pleasure or joy we say that the experience contains its own meaning. But when we experience something unpleasant we find it more difficult to say that.
But why would it not?
If the meaning of fun is to simply have fun; then why isn’t the meaning of pain to simply experience pain? Because, inside of us is our culture’s belief that we should not have to feel pain.: if we feel pain then something is wrong! “Pain should be eradicated, annihilated.” Many see the function of the physician, the psychotherapist, and the healthcare community as that of eradicating pain.
Please understand that I am not in favor of unnecessary pain; I believe that, in most cases, we should alleviate pain when we can. I am simply challenging our cultural attitude that we should not have to feel pain.
Pain is as inevitable as pleasure; both of these experiences are inherent in the physical body. Animals experience both pleasure and pain; but I don’t think that animals believe that should not have pain. They simply respond to it as nature directs them.
The meaning of life is to experience life. The meaning of human life is to experience human life.
Some would say “But we are here to learn, and to grow spiritually. Doesn’t that require us to find the meaning of our experiences?”
I believe that we are here to learn and to grow. And, perhaps the best way to do that is to experience life deeply and fully; learning and growth will occur automatically. We learn best through direct experience. our soul will glean the growth and learning it needs if we simply stay fully present to each moment.