A good friend wrote me recently. He said that his twelve-year-old son has begun to wonder if life is meaningless and if death ruins the joy of life. This is an intelligent, athletic, handsome young man with loving, highly educated, and economically successful parents, living in a first-world country. Truth be told this young man’s grandfather has recently died and his grandmother is gravely ill. But even absent these tragedies, a question inevitably arises. Why would such a young man be so troubled?
WHY DO WE WANT TO KNOW IF LIFE IS MEANINGFUL?
The question of the meaning of life arises for almost anyone who begins to think. As Camus said, “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” The desire to make sense out of life is a primary motivator of human life. As the famous cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz said: “The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and pressing as the more familiar biological needs.” Thus the question emanates, in part, from a deep wellspring of biological and psychological need; the need to answer the question springs from our nature, reaching in some sense into the genome itself.
The other source for the question is undoubtedly our historical, cultural, social, and family environments. What is happening at this moment in history, culture, society, and family elicit and frames the question of meaning in a certain way. And, given that the question of life’s meaning only became a prominent one in western civilization in the 19th century, it is reasonable to think that there is something about secularism and modernity that has brought the question to the surface. Philosophers as diverse as Habermas, Nagel, Dworkin, and Charles Taylor all argue that something is missing in the secular world, while religious thinkers as diverse as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and John Fire Lame Deer believe that consumerism, capitalism, and materialism leave many bereft of hope and meaning.
Thus the general answer to a question about human thought and behavior is always some combination of nature and nurture, of a genome in an environment. Of course, a specific case of an obsession with the question could emerge from psychological maladies like depression or anxiety, although we shouldn’t draw this conclusion too quickly. Asking about meaning is often a mark of an authentic human life, not of a mental disease.
THE ANSWER IS FOUND IN SOMETHING LARGER THAN OURSELVES
I have written at length on this blog and in my book about meaning in human life. There are many ways to derive it, and all sorts of people live what they believe are meaningful lives. But one idea that comes up constantly is to place our lives in a larger context. For example, Bertrand Russell said he overcame the fear of death when he let the walls of his ego recede, and saw himself in a larger context. The things he cared about: truth, beauty, goodness, knowledge, and all the rest would be pursued without him. The historian and philosopher Will Durant suggested something similar:
If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self. If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”
To better understand consider that the meaning of a movie or painting is difficult to discern if you see only a small part of them. If I only see a few moments of the movie or a few brushstrokes of the painting, I can’t understand them as well as if I see the whole thing. Of course, we might see the whole movie or painting and still find them meaningless. But it is somewhat comforting to know that if we saw the entire movie or painting—or the past and future of all reality—then we might be able to understand their meaning. If there is meaning to life, the universe, and everything then it must come from a perspective we now lack. This means the problem might not be that the universe lacks meaning, but that we lack the proper perspective.
SHOULD IT BOTHER US THAT WE CAN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION?
Some might reply that it is not comforting but depressing to lack the universal perspective needed to make a determination about meaning. Should we respond like this? In some sense we should, because our dissatisfaction pushes us to do whatever it takes to answer our questions. On the other hand, we must accept that we do not now have all the answers we desire, and probably will not get them in our lifetime. Life calls upon us to learn to live without being sure. It is a hard lesson and most never learn it. But the honest and courageous live with ambiguity and without answers—they live authentically.
In my next post, I will quote at length a 1932 letter from a convict sentenced to life in prison on the meaning of life.