On the subject of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recounts how a journalist asked him how he felt about his book being a successful bestseller. He replied that he did not see this as a success or achievement but an indication of the lack of meaning in people’s lives. This book was published over seventy years ago but the question of the meaning of life persists, where and how do we find it, is there meaning to life, and if there is how do we find it?
A person living in Europe during the Middle Ages had a shared belief system given by Christianity. This belief system offered a meaning to life, how to behave, why we are here and where we go after death. With the decline of religion and the rise of science during the Enlightenment another vision of life arose which was the scientific vision. It was very successful in explaining the physical world and how it works, resulting in great technological revolutions. Science explains well the ‘how’ of things but is relatively silent on the ‘why’ of things. The ‘why’ addresses the purpose and the meaning. As science became more successful and popular in the nineteenth century, some philosophers and writers saw the vacuum of meaning starting to emerge in society. Nietzsche famously said: “God is dead…and we have killed him”. This is not a statement of victory but of concern: in the search for the means to develop better technology we are losing the meaning in life. A new ‘ism’ came about during this time called Nihilism, which is a view of life where everything is relative, there is no morality and there is no inherent meaning in life. This Nihilistic attitude in facing life is something that has not gone away. It has continued to spread and develop and is with us today in our society.
The Nihilistic view of life is not the only one. There is another view of life which is affirming, to accept that life is not perfect, that there are challenges, suffering, doubt, things go wrong, but within that there is an opportunity to grow individually and collectively through adversity. There is no inner growth without inner resistance, and the challenge of COVID-19 and others afford us the opportunity to put ourselves to the test like all the great heroes from mythology. There has never been a time where people did not face the unexpected; it is part and parcel of living. Finding meaning in the challenges and opportunities of daily life is one of the things that can help us.
What does the word ‘meaning’ mean? It is intimately related to purpose. The purpose is the aim, or end-goal, and having this purpose in sight gives meaning to experiences to reach the goal. Once the purpose of something is clear, it then gives a means or meaning to achieve the purpose. How does one find meaning or purpose in life? Some look for the ultimate purpose first, the large purpose so to imbue everyday life with meaning. The Greeks called them ideals, in India they called it Dharman and Carl Jung referred to Archetypes of the Collective Unconsciousness. Another view is to find purpose in the small things of everyday life, which will help clarify and construct the large meaning and purpose in one’s life. The best approach is to combine the two views at the same time. How can we find meaning in daily life? A few keys offered from wise sages throughout humanity’s long history can help:
Life is abound with different opinions on what is right and wrong, what is beneficial and unwholesome, what is just and unjust. This can create uncertainty and doubt and stifle one’s action. How does a craftsman decide if an idea for a design is good or not? The craftsman builds or manifests the design and tests it. The same with the ideas we have, to put them to the test, and observe them in action. If they are good for us and for others and promote a spirit of unity then we are going in the right direction. These ideas will give meaning to our actions.
Taking responsibility is not something typically promoted in our society today; instead society encourages us to be a passive observer in the events of life. When we are responsible for something, something bigger than ourselves, it gives our life a purpose and meaning. Responsibility takes us outside what is known and comfortable into the adventure of the unknown and uncomfortable so as to truly experience life.
Question with Courage
To find meaning is to explore the unknown territory of life, to let go of preconceived ideas and validate what we think we know. As Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Are our current values and opinions elevating us or are they limiting us? These are not easy questions to ask oneself and it requires courage to face oneself and to be honest with oneself. This Socratic dialogue with oneself has a purifying effect, letting go of an old way of being to embrace a new way of being.
Be Patient in Action
Meaning may not appear immediately but takes time to discover. It is to have the patience to wait for the small mysteries of life to unveil themselves to us. When something is done well, with the right attention, with the right thought and efficiently then there is a sense of satisfaction. Through conscious repetition and observing oneself and life around us, daily actions give small pieces of wisdom. These aggregate pieces of daily wisdom give our actions a deeper dimension.
These keys are a partial list but will help to unlock some of the meaning that is inherent in yourself, others and life. In paraphrasing Viktor Frankl, man should not ask the meaning of his life but recognise that it is life that is asking him, that life is questioning him and to life he can only respond by being responsible.