The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

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Does life need to have meaning?

Whether life has meaning, and what that meaning may be, are two questions that have become a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry over our collective time on this planet. There have been suggestions from various moralists and religionists that talk of life’s meaning in a rather literal sense. Serving others and being faithful to one’s God has been for many, not just a suggested theory on the meaning of life, but rather a categorical account of things that is backed up by the threat of everlasting misery and torture. And before you jump to the assumption that we live in more ‘enlightened’ times in the 21st century, one must not forget that all of us, especially in the Western world, are living under an economic system that dictates at least part of the meaning of life is to work in order to make money and therefore pay for things. This may not be backed up by everlasting damnation, but it is certainly something enforced by law. There are alternatives perhaps, as long as homelessness and ostracisation sound appealing.

There are, of course, those of us who say that the meaning of life may simply be to find one’s own meaning, regardless of  what other people say or tell us to do. A popular philosophical perspective on this comes from the French existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. In his book ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, he lays out a defence of his existentialist account of the world, claiming that the way humans cope with feelings of abandonment and isolation in a godless, chaotic universe, is to elevate themselves to a position in which they are their own masters and agents. If there is no meaning to life, it is our privilege to be able to create one. 

What I think Sartre is pointing to here, is this idea that we all live with an innate ‘itch’ or ‘gut feeling’ that life ought to have meaning, despite whether that meaning is imposed on us from above, or whether we create it for ourselves. In turn, what this suggests, I think, is that even the most ardent atheists who are convinced of our isolation in the universe cannot really cope with the idea of a meaningless existence, for it simply has such a negative connotation attached to it. Most of us do not afford ourselves the luxury of doing nothing, as time doing nothing has somehow become seen as a guilty pleasure.

When you think about it, are you someone who can really enjoy doing nothing? Even our so-called downtime is seen as necessary to being able to do the really ‘important’ things in life with more focus and energy. Companies, for example, afford their staff allotted time slots to ‘take a break’, in the hope that morale will remain high and targets and KPIs will eventually be met in the long run.

But if we think back to the opening of this piece, we remind ourselves that being driven by a fear of a meaningless existence is something we impose on ourselves. Maybe the question we should begin with is not, what is the meaning of life, but rather, does life have to have a meaning? Put another way, is the possibility of emptiness and purposelessness something to run from, or to embrace? I think, deep down, humans are a lot more capable to embracing emptiness than we might think. Sure, we may feel a little guilty about doing nothing all day, or we might buy into this idea that to rest is merely a means towards allowing us to work more efficiently, but these are no more than societal constructs we’ve allowed to control us. Nobody can deny the joy of a purposeless walk or an afternoon sat with a book or with the television on.

One of the reasons meditation and yoga are fast becoming very popular past times is because they offer a genuine alternative to doing something ‘active’ or ‘meaningful’, or rather the need to do something active or meaningful. True, there are many good reasons to meditate, but we don’t need to assign meaning to it in order to enjoy it. In fact, if the idea is to dissociate ourselves from our thoughts and concepts, then we must realise that feeling the need to assign meaning to things is itself a construct of the mind that can be dismissed if we choose.

Having the freedom to find one’s own meaning in life is something we all hold very dear. But this does not always give us a satisfactory starting position, and perhaps a better way to appreciate the journey of life is to remember that the search for life’s meaning is a self-imposed mission. If we no longer feel the need to take on this mission, the lines between work and play, purposeful and purposeless, might begin to merge into one joyous series of unnecessary events, without the stresses of wondering whether we are doing them for the ‘right’ reasons.

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