Does life carry a meaning? Does it even matter?
This is a long quote, but it is important for me to present to the reader this brilliant passage, written by Viktor E. Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. I recommend every man – and of course woman, but particularly man – to read this book.
As a Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl witnessed the brutalities of the Nazi regime in the Second World War and spent time in the concentration camp in Auschwitz. His psychological insides are based on his observations of the inmates, their life, their experiences, their attitudes towards their fate as victims of the most brutal war humanity has ever witnessed. How can you continue living your life like this, when a group of people sees you as inferior to them and uses you only for work, just like humanity has used animals throughout all of history? What gives your life the necessary amount of meaning to not just commit suicide?
what is meaning and its purpose?
Meaning could be defined as the things, people or ideas that we live for. “Meaning” are the reasons we live and create for. The reasons that motivate us to leave our bed every morning, even if we do not really feel like it. Meaning can be an idea, like God or a materialistic thing like a car, or a book collection or it can be a person like someone’s family, wife, husband, son or daughter or a romantic relationship. Our “meaning” changes throughout our lifetime. What we consider important today will probably be replaced in some years by something else. Meaning, like all other things in life, is temporary. Even something like our belief in God can change. I live through times when I stopped believing and times I started believing again. In the moments of faith I just could not imagine a future without faith… but it came. In moments of doubt, I could not imagine a return to faith and yet here I am. Meaning changes, and that is something that we should be conscious about in order to not just go through life searching for some everlasting meaning that will keep us content until we die.
the development of meaning
Meaning Outside of the Individual
It seems like a change occurred in the minds of people throughout history. In earlier centuries, humans seemed to find meaning outside of the individual, outside of themselves. Firstly, people needed to work every day because their life depended on it. Nowadays, especially in more industrialized countries, we do not witness the fight for everyday survival like people did a hundred, two and more hundred years ago, since the development of the first human communities. Survival makes one put meaning into the community, something outside of the individual, because without the community one could not survive. The importance of family also falls into this category, because the roots of the institution begin with the establishment of the first communities. One can find meaning in the maintenance of a family and the survival of the partner and the children; things outside of the individual.
Meaning, in older times, could also be found in belief and religion. The meaning of life itself is the entrance into paradise and, hopefully, not hell. God himself is an idea, an entity who one can rely on in the most difficult of times. An idea outside of the individual, outside of oneself.
Some more ideas that were important to people, in the past more than in the present, are national identity, tradition and culture, ethnicity and race. Those ideas seem to go through a restoration in some European countries due to the cultural war that is taking place for the last decade, especially in the west. This cultural war does not seem to be ending any time soon. The return to nationalist ideologies will probably become stronger in the decade to come. Those nationalist ideas again, are something outside of the individual, outside of one’s self. Even though one is defining himself by his supposed heritage and genetic make up that is in himself, those ideas are represented in the outer world. In the music, the art, the architecture, the language, the literature, the physiognomy of the people that belong to the same ethnicity. Even religion and God can be put into this category. Furthermore, family can be put into this category because of the preservation of the nation but also the preservation of one’s name. The parents, more precisely the father, want to give their last name to a son who will then continue the name’s history. Those were motivations outside of the individual.
The ways in which human beings of older generations found meaning in things outside of the individual, outside of themselves is very visible here. How does that look like now – in our modern, capitalist, commercialized societies?
Meaning Inside of the Individual
In our modern, materialist, capitalist, commercialized societies institutions like community, family, social hierarchy, faith and religion, God himself, marriage and birth have all lost their earlier high value.
The devaluation of those institutions has its routs in the fight for freedom of marginalized social groups that were discriminated and disadvantaged by those same institutions. Patriarchy and social hierarchy lost its value when women, and some men, started fighting for women’s rights. With the rise of big corporations after the capitalist revolution women were needed as workers for the system and they were of big advantage for states because more workers means more taxes. Self-actualization, in form of a successful career, is now more important for many women than finding their meaning outside of their selves by creating and serving a family and their husband. Meaning inside of the individual with the help of personal achievements and materialistic purchases. Achievements not to please someone else, but primarily one’s self.
The devaluation of God and Religion, as an institution that has power over our actions also came in the name of personal, individual freedom. “I will not let some God, whose existence is not even proven, dictate how I should live my life.” Many people in our time lose their faith in God. The pseudo-intellectual narcissism and arrogance of our time make it easy for an individual to give up their self-control and humbleness. Becoming a victim to the pleasures of the flesh is seen as a revolution against the tyranny of God. I have been a victim of that myself, until I realized that I was acting just like the biggest revolutionary in the history of the universe, Satan himself. For an atheist all those things will sound absurd. Just skip this part and take with you the main argument of the paragraph, namely, that meaning has left the world outside of one’s self and entered the sphere of the individual in our modern times.
The church has mistreated many marginalized groups, especially women and homosexual people. The church has lost much of its power when the governance of a nation went from the church to the state. The separation of church and state in most countries of the west in the name of individual freedom has opened opportunities of self-actualization to marginalized groups. Those groups will live out their individual freedoms as excessively as they can. This is the an understandable reaction to the hundreds of years of persecution and discrimination.
The fall of those institutions in the name of individual freedom and self-actualization has made the search for meaning more difficult for human beings. We are limited in our capabilities which means that we will fail often. If we base the meaning of our lives on personal success and self-actualization we will spend a lot of time trying to acquire something that will give us this meaning. More often than not, we will fail. That is why balance is important.
the golden mean
The golden mean, or the golden middle way, is the balance between meaning outside and meaning inside of the individual. Our personal freedoms and self-actualization are important drivers for a happy life. Nevertheless, at the end of the day if we only think about our individual happiness and success and strive everyday to achieve this happiness and success we will run into a thick wall of Nihilism because at the end of the day those are the things that have the least meaning. Happiness is temporary. Not being happy is the goal, but being content; having no regrets when we go to bed in the evening. Finding a meaning of life that exists outside of ourselves, will make us feel content with life. Community, family, friendship, religion, God, culture, tradition. Those institutions will stay with us forever. The things and people that they consist of will probably change throughout the course of our lives but we can refill them. There is never a lack of people worthy of being part of our community, family and circle of friends.
Many times conclusions are not concluding anything, especially when writing about an ambiguous topic like the meaning of life. I will have to conclude with one sentence of Viktor E. Frankl’s quote.
Maybe there is no meaning in life. Maybe the creation of the universe, and therefore the creation of human beings, was a big coincidence. We are thrown into this world and we will leave this world after some (hopefully many) decades. Or maybe life has a meaning. Somebody created the universe and human beings with a specific purpose in mind. This purpose we will probably never get to discover during our lifetime on this planet. We can philosophize about the meaning of life until we grow long white beards (males) and long white hair (females). We will not come to a conclusion. The meaning of life is what everybody defines individually. At the end of the day, coming back to Viktor E. Frankl, we have to ask ourselves what we can and cannot control in life. Then take what we can control and start creating the best out of it.
If we still try to define a meaning for our lives, let it be something higher than the mere individual. We, ourselves, are not the pinnacle of creation. Only in combination with something outside of the individual can meaning have value. What are we doing this for?