Written at Starbucks in Willow Glen with my usual blonde roast coffee and Avicii on Pandora. This essay is inspired by my counseling sessions with people on hospice, with months to live. More to come.
Life is intrinsically meaningless. By intrinsic, I simply mean in-and-of-itself. For life is in fact deeply meaningful once we infuse it with meaning through shared experiences and values between conscious minds. A jug of water that sits on the surface of Mars, unbeknownst to any person in the universe is meaningless. However, a jug of water that is found by a dehydrated traveler in the Sahara is profoundly meaningful; for it can nourish his body or even save his life. It takes a conscious mind (an experiencer) to experience meaning. A letter received in the mail is rather meaningless. But everything changes if the letter inside the envelope reveals whether the recipient is accepted or denied entrance into medical school. For then, it’s not just a letter; it’s a portal into another dimension of life. Given these nuances, what then can we say about a meaningful life?
Meaning is an abstract representation of value and significance. When engaged with meaningful activities, we’re induced with visceral feelings that overtake and move us to acknowledge that some-thing or some-one is valuable and significant. Meaning is abstract like love, in that you can’t point directly to it or put it under a microscope to view it- yet we dare not deny its existence. A meaningful life obtains breadth and depth through engagement in relationships and connecting with the world through the expression of values and passions. Meaning is the elixir to life itself, in that, we need it to get through life. Without meaning, why or how would anyone go on? In contrast, our life takes on more purpose and significance when we allow ourselves to be bowled over by such experiences like beauty, love, and generosity, etc.
The responsibility of experiencing meaning falls upon you – the individual. We affect the quality and significance of meaning through our outlook and openness to life. Monday mornings, for example, are intrinsically meaningless. In-and-of-itself, Monday morning serves as a designation of time- that’s it. However, Monday morning gains contours and a complexion through its representation as, for example, the ending of your restful weekend and back to the office for another week of grinding it out. When you get out of bed on a Monday, you can either imbue the beginning of your week with a negative and nihilistic outlook or positive and opportunistic outlook. However, the somber and dismal perspective we put on Monday morning is a subjective expression that we imbue. The same goes with the breadth and depth of meaning in your life: the people, experiences, and perspective you take on life is shaped by the value and worth you imbue upon them.
Meaning gets its force and vitality through the value. My bi-annual trip to Hawaii with my family has a lot of value for me; while my business trip last January to Houston had little value. Laying with my 20-month year old son as he goes to sleep is deeply valuable; but if my son is replaced with my cat Muffins, then it loses its meaningful force. Value, in the context that I am using it, is a symbolic representation of the worth and significance of some-thing or some-one. The beauty of our neural circuitry and evolutionary trajectory is that we possess the capacity to feel empathically, connect deeply, and express passionately. We have been blessed with the proclivities and predispositions to be turned inside-out by awe and wonder. Thus, we engage in meaningful projects, political movements, hobbies, and relationships that grip our attention while enriching our lives.
Any cursory discussion around meaning most always ends up with someone asking, “Well then, what is the meaning of life?” Well to start, there is a vast and crucial difference between “meaning of life” and “meaning in life.” It’s amazing how one little preposition can have such an impact! The search for the meaning of life is like the search for the fountain of youth – it’s something outside of you that you need to find in order to make you whole. While the search for meaning in life is your personal quest to figure out what keeps you motivated to get out of bed every morning – day after day. Albert Camus begins his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question…” The worth and value of life is found in meaningful experiences, pursuits, and relationships – in life. Meaning is not out there waiting for you to find it, say, at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Rather, our day-to-day being itself, is a mosaic of meaningful opportunities and pursuits that should open our eyes to the panoply of beauty and value that surrounds us – in life.