The Meaning of Life

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 believe that we can understand why we are having that experience. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Of all human experiences the experience of meaninglessness is perhaps the most unbearable. Folks who are prone to depression and suicidal thoughts will inevitably state that they feel their life has no meaning. And when a tragic and unexpected event occurs in a person’s life one the very first questions she will ask is “Why did this happen?” “What does this mean?” Children who experience abandonment or abuse will often blame themselves because it’s the only explanation they have available that gives meaning to their experience. 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 our answers. Although science is extraordinary adept at telling us the how of things it is unable to explain the why of things; science cannot tell us the meaning of life. With the demise of religion as a source of meaning in our culture we now find ourselves deep in a crisis of meaning. For many has led to nihilism and despair. Many in our culture have turned to entertainment and consumerism in a vain attempt to find some meaning in their lives. It doesn’t work for very long.

Meaning is something we create internally; it is not inherent in the objective world. A particular tree can have meaning to us because of the memories we associate with that tree, but the tree 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 is more helpful to look at our state of mind from whence the search begins. When you have been in a state of ecstasy did you look for the meaning of life? When you have experienced deep pleasure were you inquiring into what that experience meant? When you are truly enjoying yourself are you on a quest for the meaning of what is happening?

Probably not.

When do we look for meaning? Usually, it’s when we are dissatisfied or unhappy. We look for the meaning of our suffering; but do we look for the meaning of our joy?

Not very often.

Why is this?

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 can find a reason “why” then we can bear that which otherwise seems unbearable. If we do seem to find a reason or meaning then perhaps it does help us to bear the load for a while. But it’s interesting to see that the search for meaning usually arises out of a 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 the experience contains its own meaning, as it is.

But why would it not? If the meaning of joy is to experience joy; then why isn’t the meaning of pain to simply experience pain?

Because we have internalized our cultural belief that we should not have to feel pain; if we feel pain then something is wrong! “If I am suffering then someone has failed or is evil or negligent” (hence our culture of endless blame, fault-finding and litigation.) We believe that “all pain should be eradicated.” Many see the primary function of the physician, the psychotherapist or the health care community as that of removing our pain.

It is true that pain may indicate something needs our attention. And, I am certainly not in favor of experiencing unnecessary pain. Generally speaking, I believe that we should alleviate pain, if it is possible--and if doing so does not have harmful consequences.

I am simply challenging the notion that we should not have to feel pain. Pain is as inevitable as pleasure; both of these experiences are inherent in a physical body. Animals experience both pleasure and pain. I don’t think that animals believe they should not have pain; they simply respond to their pain 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, “We are here to learn and to grow spiritually; doesn’t that require us to find the meaning of our experiences?”

Perhaps we are here to learn and to grow. The best way to do this is to experience life fully and consciously--then learning and growth will happen automatically. We learn best through direct experience. Our soul will experience the growth and learning it needs if we simply stay fully present in each moment.

No one could offer you more Do you know what I mean? Have your eyes really seen? .........................Elton John