The Meaning of Life
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2018
We squander hope time seeking the meaning of life; but we should, instead, create a life of meaning.
Here it is, presented in a beautifully wrapped package, succinctly written in easy to follow words—the meaning of life. Do I have your attention? Humans have searched for the meaning of life ever since they stumbled on consciousness. When we are not planning for our next meal, shelter or sexual partner, we ruminate about what’s it all about, anyway. The ingenious human mind has constructed complex, simple and cockamamie theories over the millennia, often serving to bind peoples together, motivating them to good and evil action.
The drive to know the purpose of life is like a cruel joke. We want to know something beyond our capacity to know, frustratingly we grasp at straws to create a castle. Perhaps the answer is not in the imaginary castle but in the blades of straw we hold in our hands. As we narrow our vision, zeroing in on aspects of living, we find purpose and purpose gives enriches our experience and gives fullness to life.
Carl Jung mused, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” We may search the giant libraries of the grandest universities, devouring philosophy from the great minds of humanity and never stumble upon the enriching gifts of meaning.
“Hang up philosophy! Unless philosophy can make a Juliet…” William Shakespeare
The words, no matter how bright and intelligent, fail where the heart presides. Science struggles to integrate the world of neurons into the rich mental life of feelings, sensations, and meanings. Sitting on top of Maslow’s pyramid rest self-actualization—a meaningful life. But those that achieve peace don’t subscribe to a universal doctrine of meaning. They haven’t read from a golden book, hidden in a cave with carefully guarded secrets of meaning. Their self-actualization and peace stem from living a meaningful life—Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr.
"Our purposeful ruminations forge meaning rather than find meaning."
Our suffering, achievements and motivations all are subject to meaning. The meanings give life to our existence. Through meaning the emptiness is filled and the shadows dispersed with light. But meaning is subjective and often dictated by painful pasts. The sorrows can absorb all the goodness out of life, leaving meanings parched and cynical, shattering fundamental assumptions (people are good, the world is just, the environment is safe and predictable). Life becomes senseless and devoid of self-actualizing purpose. When meaningless prevails, we our held hostage by the evils in our lives, slipping into the depths of depression. Especially in hardship, we need purposeful meaning to lighten our load and re-infuse our life with hope. We need to suffer well.
Michael Eigen suggests that experience shifts meanings in different contexts “Spirit, mind, I, Self, consciousness, unconscious, psyche, breath, energy, meaning, personality, body aliveness, variable fields of being—.” How we experience the happening of living depends deeply on the machinery of the mind. What goes in is subject to the twisting and turning of complexity before being spit out into a coherent story of purpose. When life is too chaotic, the processing of experience can go awry. The pain, the sorrow and the shocks make no sense; life has no meaning and we collapse. “When one’s scream becomes meaningless,” we no longer scream when wronged. (Toxic Nourishment; Michael Eigen; 1999.)
When life experience overwhelms, collapsing previous expectations of life, invalidating how we once made sense of the world, the mind churns over the experience seeking to assign a place of meaning. Some events have no logical meaning. The cruelty of the world collides with our serene existence creating unpredictable chaos that we can’t explain. Our ruminations attempt to find meaning that doesn’t exist. In these instances, we must intervene with a self-disciplined rumination. Emily Esfahani Smith refers to this process as “deliberate rumination.”
Our purposeful ruminations forge meaning rather than find meaning. The purpose for a singular event may lie hidden in complexity; we can only accept the pain by accepting that life, at times, is undefinable. We must redirect our mind to key areas that establish foundations of meaning. We need purposeful goals and supporting relationships.
In The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegal declares, “The way the mind establishes meaning is closely linked to social interactions and both meaning making and relationships appear to be mediated via the same neural circuits responsible for initiating emotional processes.”
Our emotions felt, our purpose for feeling and how these inner-experiences connect us to life are intertwined. Loneliness and lack of meaning often travel together. We need our pain to be meaningful—to actually have a purpose, creating a connection to others and life. We don’t need relief for discomforts but a purpose for the discomforts.
In the words of Frankl, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” (Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl.)
I don’t know the meaning of life; I do know my life has meaning. My goals of deepening spirituality, research and grappling with unanswerable existential questions of existence (coming to know certain truths about the world and accepting the unknowables) has given meaning and purpose. My connections to adult children in their various stages of struggle and success gives meaning and purpose. My ruminations can’t save a child from struggling or force different action, but I can love and compassionately accept. My loving wife and her supporting connection gives life meaning and purpose. These are the things that renew appreciation for life. My mind delights in human kindness, the beauties of nature, and the fascinating feelings of the body. “…nothing invests life with more meaning than the realization that every moment of sentience is a precious gift.” (Steven Pinker; the Blank Slate)
Life in all its splendid wonders holds more meaning than a life time of exploration will ever discover. We connect with life in openness to allow meaning to continually flow through souls, brighten our minds and create lasting connections with the world and its inhabitants. This is the meaning of life.
Books Referenced in this Article: