Looking for the Meaning of Life

SYNOPSIS:

    When we seek to make our own lives "meaningful",
we might be struggling with two different sorts of meaninglessness.
We can create many kinds of relative meanings
within the assumed areas of meaningful life:
money, achievement, love, marriage, children, enjoyment, & religion.
But even when we have fulfilled such meanings,
we might still feel an ultimate hollowness,
a spiritual or existential meaninglessness.
This deeper meaninglessness is not overcome
by any of the relative meanings we are able to create or achieve.




The following 5-fold distinction underlies this essay:

Relative Meaninglessness              Existential Meaninglessness

1. Disappointed expectations;                 1. Frameworks of meaning collapse;
failure to fulfill accepted criteria.              lack of ultimate purpose in life.

2. Discrepancy between established     2. Uncaused; discovered as a
criteria and observable actualities;        fundamental condition-of-being;
based on intellectual information.          existentially disclosed.

3. Temporary—lasts only until                3. Permanent—no matter what we
the discrepancy is corrected.                 change, meaninglessness continues.

4. Limited to a specific                              4. Pervades every dimension of life.
realm of meaning.

5. We know what to change                    5. Nothing we can do
to bring meaning.                                       will make life ultimately meaningful.


OUTLINE:

I.  MY EARLY QUEST FOR MEANING

II.  NO HELP FROM ACADEMIC PSYCHOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY

III.  RELATIVE MEANINGLESSNESS & EXISTENTIAL MEANINGLESSNESS

IV.  THE COLLAPSE OF 'MEANINGS' AND ILLUSIONS

V.  BEYOND EXISTENTIAL MEANINGLESSNESS


length: 7 KB


LOOKING FOR THE MEANING OF LIFE

by James Leonard Park

I. MY EARLY QUEST FOR MEANING

    I first glimpsed the meaninglessness of life in my late teens,
when I began to look deeply into my future,
trying to decide what to do with my life.
It was a time of deep searching and questioning.
I will try to reproduce from memory some of my thoughts from that time:

      I see many people in the world, running this way and that,
 busy with work and family and various kinds of recreation.
 But what does it all mean in the long run?
 What if I had never been born?
 And after I am dead, what mark will I have left on the world
 to show that I have existed,
 that I have accomplished something?
 Will I be remembered for even 100 years?

      Human life seems like a useless, meaningless treadmill.
 It is like a huge industrial complex for producing oil,
 but all of the oil is needed to keep the machines running!
 All it accomplishes is its own perpetuation.
 What's the point of running around in a squirrel-cage,
 of giving my life to a rat-race without a goal?

     My early sense of meaninglessness was directly related to death:
If we all must die, can life have any ultimate meaning?
I didn't realize it clearly at the time, but this quest for meaning
made me quite fanatical about doing something of permanent value.
I didn't want to 'lose' any moment of life.
At the end of each day, I wanted to be able to say
that I had accomplished something of lasting significance.

     I now see that I misunderstood the nature of my meaninglessness
and that I was using inappropriate methods for dealing with it
—looking for a definite purpose, a specific meaning for my life.
But this effort to create my own meaning did not work.
I eventually saw thru all the goals and purposes of my contemporaries:
Possessions, accomplishments, adventures, love, marriage, family
all seemed hollow and empty, ephemeral and fleeting.
I knew these would not satisfy my quest for meaning.
And I took an arrogant attitude toward those who thought otherwise
—the near-sighted people who literally gave themselves to such trivia:

      Most people keep their eyes trained just a few paces ahead.
 They do not see their coming deaths;
 they do not ask where their journey is ultimately headed.
 They live relatively contented lives, pursuing their goals,
 enjoying the many diversions and amusements along the way.
 Their lives differ little from the lives of animals.
 They live from one moment to the next as their neighbors do,
 without asking the ultimate questions of life.
    Religion also played a role in my early quest for meaning.
I wanted to believe in life after death.  This was my naive reasoning:
      Granted that this life has no meaning in itself,
 it must be preparation for life in another dimension.
 Death is not the end but the beginning,
 the beginning of an eternal life which will be so meaningful
 that its meaning will reflect back on this preparatory life.
 Only when the heavenly life has begun, however,
 will we understand the full significance
 of what is happening to us in earthly life.
     But this attempt was futile also.
I saw that my strongest reason for believing in
"existence beyond the grave" was my wish for it.
When I sensed my own meaninglessness,
I projected an existence where everything would be made "all better".



II. NO HELP FROM ACADEMIC PSYCHOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY

     Another snapshot: In an introductory psychology class in college,
the professor commented that the search for meaning was childish.
The students all laughed; obviously they did not agree.
Perhaps the professor thought we should to be satisfied with
relative meanings, short-term goals we can achieve.
Everyday purposes and goals can be measured against assumed values.



III. RELATIVE MEANINGLESSNESS & EXISTENTIAL MEANINGLESSNESS

     But when we say that life is meaningless,
we question the assumed standards of meaning themselves.
We know that we can spend our lives working toward relative goals.
But is that meaningful? 
The whole process seems hollow and empty.

     Short-term purposes and relative goals no longer satisfy us.
We know all about pursuing practical goals in work and family.
But do these little meanings add up to anything?
Even in the midst of contentment, existential meaninglessness appears.



IV. THE COLLAPSE OF 'MEANINGS' AND ILLUSIONS

     This kind of meaninglessness
is not a reasoned conclusion but an inward disclosure.
Spiritual meaninglessness is a sense of futility arising from within.
Such disclosive moments happen when short-term goals collapse.
Or maybe in a period of leisure we see ourselves in depth.
We might suddenly be struck with the futility of our lives.
One of the "Peanuts" comic strips illustrates this:
Lucy is merrily jumping rope. 
Suddenly her mouth droops;
she drags her jump-rope over to Charlie Brown and says,
"I suddenly realized the futility of it all!"

     Usually we keep our underlying condition locked away, under wraps.
We keep ourselves busy and preoccupied
so that we seldom notice our fundamental meaninglessness.
But sometimes—against our wills—something pierces our thick skin,
cracks our protective shell, opens the cage of our imprisonment,
and our guts spill tangled on the ground.
Our life-purposes have collapsed, leaving us empty and alone.

     Every 'meaning' contains the possibility of disillusionment.
If we put our trust in possessions, success,
marriage, children, enjoyment, religion,
we can be profoundly disappointed if that 'meaning' fails.

     If we hope to attain meaning thru children who will live after us,
perhaps giving us a pinch of 'immortality',
then we might be cast into confusion and regret
if our children disappoint our dreams 'for them'
or if all our children die before us, leaving no children of their own.
If our dreams of finding meaning thru children are destroyed,
our hidden existential meaninglessness might flood consciousness.



V. BEYOND EXISTENTIAL MEANINGLESSNESS

     It might take years of living to be convinced
that—try as we might—we cannot create our own ultimate meaning.
When we let go of the relative meanings we once thought were absolute,
can we open ourselves for the coming of meaning?
Martin Buber puts it this way:
 There is an inexpressible confirmation of meaning.
 Meaning is assured.
 Nothing can any longer be meaningless.
 The question about the meaning of life is no longer there.
 But were it there, it would not have to be answered.
 You do not know how to exhibit and define the meaning of life,
 you have no formula or picture for it,
 and yet it has more certitude for you
 than the perceptions of your senses....
 Meaning does not permit itself to be transmitted
 and made into knowledge generally current and admissible....
 It is not prescribed, it is not specified on any tablet,
 to be raised above all men's heads.
 The meaning that has been received can be proved true
 to each man only in the singleness of his being
 and the singleness of his life.

 [Martin Buber I and Thou  tr. Ronald Gregor Smith
 (New York: Scribners, 1958) p. 110 & 111]

     Is this 'meaning' the removal of existential meaninglessness,
rather than the attainment of any specific meanings?
As meaninglessness was experienced as inner frailty and collapse,
is this 'meaning' the inner condition of strength and integrity?
This is not the kind of meaning we can tell others about.
But perhaps we can help them to open themselves to meaning.

     This is not a cognitive meaning, to be logically explained.
Existential meaning is not a cosmic revelation, picturing another life.
No new insight has occurred;
no new information has been provided.
Can we say that existential meaning has come to us?
It does not reveal itself all at once;
we glimpse it from time to time.
Do we gradually come to realize that meaning has dawned upon us?



Questions for Discussion

1.  When did you first begin to ask about the meaning of life?

2.  What do you think about the assumed 'meanings' of our culture?

3.  When choosing how to spend your life, do you feel meaningless?

4.  Has it been difficult to share your meaninglessness with others?

5.  If and when you feel meaningless, do you consider suicide?

6.  Have you been content to pursue relative meanings,
       without asking for the ultimate meaning of human existence?

7.  All of the world's religions see some purpose behind human life.
       Which of these views—if any—do you find convincing?

8.  Was there a time in your life when religious beliefs
       gave meaning to your existence?

9.  Can earthly life be made meaningful by life after death?

10.  Have you ever had a 'disclosive moment' in which you saw futility?

11.  Have you given up the struggle to create your own meaning?

12.  Have you opened yourself for the coming of existential meaning?

13.  Have you experienced the removal of existential meaninglessness?


revised 10-2000, 4-30-2001, 5-14-2001, 3-4-2003; 6-24-2003; 2-20-2005;
11-2-2006; 4-17-2008; 6-18-2011; 7-4-2012; 11-13-2013; 4-10-2015; 6-17-2016; 7-31-2018;


AUTHOR:

    James Park is an existential philosopher.
He continues to be interested in all quests for meaning.

    You will learn much more about him on his website:
James Leonard Park—Free Library.

    This essay has now become a chapter
in a small book called Inward Suffering.



Further Reading on Existential Meaninglessness & Meaning

    James Park  Our Existential Predicament:
Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, & Death
(Minneapolis, MN: Existential Books, 20065th edition)
Ch. 4 "Existential Meaninglessness" p. 69-75.
More information about Our Existential Predicament
is available on the Internet,
including about 10% of the pages of the book:

https://s3.amazonaws.com/aws-website-jamesleonardpark---freelibrary-3puxk/XP.html

    James Park  In Quest of Fulfillment:
Money, Achievement, Marriage, Children, Enjoyment, & Religion
(Minneapolis, MN: Existential Books, 2007second edition)
For more information about In Quest of Fulfillment, go to:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/aws-website-jamesleonardpark---freelibrary-3puxk/QF.html
This book is now out of print.



MORE INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET
ABOUT THE QUEST FOR MEANING IN LIFE

    If you would like to know more about this existential approach,
read some of the books in the Existential Spirituality Bibliography.

    Other books exploring a variety of approaches
to the quest for meaning in life are found here:
Meaning in Life Bibliography.

    Looking for the Meaning of Life, an Internet Portal,
draws together these and other Internet resources
that might be useful in your quest for meaning in life.


Go to other on-line essays by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.


Return to the UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST page


Go to the beginning of this website
James Leonard Park—Free Library