What gives your life a meaning ?
May 01, 2019 · 🕓 7 min read
What gives your life a meaning? God . Love . Money. Football. Game of Thrones?
You might have your own personal sense of purpose in your life, or you might believe that you were created with a certain essence as a human being, with a purpose given to you by God or maybe you don’t know.
But the real thing is that, the sense of meaning is something that we all crave for. We devote a lot of time and energy to this task of finding meaning in life.
You are not alone. There are some philosophers and thinkers who have devoted their entire life to this topic. Let us take a look at some of their ideas.
Way back in ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle took it as, given that everything has an essence — a certain set of core properties that are necessary, or essential — for a thing to be what it is. If those properties were missing, then that thing would be a different thing.
For instance, a knife could have a wooden handle or a metal handle — it really doesn’t matter. But if it didn’t have a blade, it wouldn’t really be a knife anymore. The blade is the essential property of the knife, because it gives the knife its defining function.
Now, Plato and Aristotle thought that everything has an essence — including us. And they believed that our essences exist in us before we’re even born. So by this thinking, part of what it means to be a good human is to adhere to your essence.
It does not matter if you are good at your essence or bad at it, but you were born to do that certain thing. This belief is known as essentialism, and it was the standard view of the world uptill the late 19th century and still accepted by many today.
Then came in Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher.
“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” — Nietzsche
He is said to be the father of “Nihilism”, which means nothingness.
It is the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism puts that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.
A lot of people find Nihilism negative and suffer from existential dread and are generally feared by the idea of having a meaningless life. But this is because they don’t understand its philosophy. Nihilism can be optimistic and its just a matter of perspective. More on this later.
By the mid-20th century, the path had been paved for French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre to return to the question of essence and ask:
What if we exist first?
What if we’re born without any hard-wired purpose?
And then it’s up to us to find our own essences? Well this became the framework for what we now know as existentialism.
“existence precedes essence.”
In other words, our existence — our birth — happens first. Then, it’s up to each of us to determine who we are. We have to write our own essence, through the way we choose to live. But we have no actual, predetermined purpose — there’s no set path that we’re supposed to follow.
In the 20th century the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus came up with the idea of Absurdism. He said we are creatures who need meaning, but we’re abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness. So we cry into the wilderness, and get no response. But we keep crying anyway. That, for an existentialist, is the definition of absurd.
He quoted :
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
Absurdism gives you three choice :
Turn to nihilism and live a life of despair until eventually taking your own life.
Commit an intellectual suicide by turning to religion and simply ignoring life’s meaninglessness and inventing a god to fill that void.
Accepting that life is meaningless and, in an act of absurdity, choose to live a life passionately, choosing things that you can be passionate about and following those things.
Absurdism advocates that you take option third.
But Sartre faced meaninglessness head-on, and explored one of the most agonizing aspects of existentialism.
Not the world’s lack of meaning. But its terrifying abundance of freedom. To most of us, freedom sounds pretty great. But Sartre thought that we are painfully, shockingly free. After all, if there are no guidelines for our actions, then each of us is forced to design our own moral code, to invent a morality to live by.
Sartre took this to mean that we are “condemned to be free,” a fate that he found to be quite awful. You might think that there’s some authority you could look to for answers, Sartre said, but all of the authorities you can think of are fake. Sartre said those authorities are really just people like you, people who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live. So the best thing you can really do, he determined, is to live authentically.
“In life man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing. No doubt this thought may seem harsh to someone who has not made a success of his life. But on the other hand, it helps people to understand that reality alone counts, and that dreams, expectations and hopes only serve to define a man as a broken dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations.” — Sartre
Update [Edit -2]
You only get one shot at life, which is scary, but it also sets you free. If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in your life will be forgotten. Every mistake you made will not matter in the end. Every bad thing you did will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is. Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point, but before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other. The fact that we’re even able to think about these things is already kind of incredible. We are truly free in a universe-sized playground, so we might as well aim to be happy and to build some kind of utopia in the stars. It’s not as if we’ve found out everything there is to know We don’t know why the rules of the universe are as they are, how life came into existence, what life is. We have no idea what consciousness is or if we are alone in the universe. But we can try to find some answers. There are billions of stars to visit, diseases to cure, people to help, happy feelings to be experienced, and video games to finish. There is so much to do. So, wrapping up, you’ve probably used up a good chunk of the time available to you.If this is our one shot at life, there is no reason not to have fun and live as happy as possible. Bonus points if you made the life of other people better. More bonus points if you help build a galactic human empire. Do the things that make you feel good. You get to decide whatever this means for you.
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Written by Sagar Karira who lives and works in Bangalore, India building amazing things. You should follow him on Twitter