Is There A Meaning to Life?

August 15th, 2010

We all know that life has many meanings. We also know that some of the meanings claim to be the meaning, but this is almost entirely implausible, because in many respects they contradict each other, they cancel each other out.

We learn in the Landmark Forum that life has no one overriding meaning, but that we’re not to really make anything of this:

“Life is empty and meaningless, and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.”

In other words, life just is. What we make of this (including “nothing”) is entirely up to us. This is, I believe, more or less definitionally true, but it’s not all there is to be said.

Perhaps we need to ask the question differently. Is there a meaning that encompasses all of the other meanings, including their contradictions, and including both meaning and no-meaning?

If there is such a meaning, then knowing what it is is clearly the most important question we need to be asking ourselves.

It is a meaning that needs to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. It needs to encompass both a scientific and a religious worldview, the meaning of both peace and war, virtue and vice, and the cause of human suffering. To even conceive of such a meaning, from an open-minded and inquisitive point of view, is already a big step in the right direction. It demonstrates that we have transcended the assumptions, the prejudices, and the limitations of the more traditional world views.

This is not about spending one’s life in abstract philosophical speculation. Even to arrive at that requires some fundamental choices in life, choices that privilege some kinds of discourses and activities over others. So in a sense the issue really is, how do we choose to lead our lives—inside what frame of meaning, or no-meaning, and what aspects of reality does that frame give us access to?

So in a sense we’re back to choosing amongst the multiplicity of views. But now at least we’re doing so from a place where we can ask the question, is there a larger view, that incorporates all of the others, and if so what does it look like?

The overarching view is not, in itself, the meaning of life; but if there is such a thing, then it must lie somewhere in this realm, and encompass and explain all of it. This overarching view may be as elusive as the posited “Theory of Everything” in physics (which surely must somehow encompass imaginary worlds as well as real ones). It may look very much like what Huxley and others have called “the perennial philosophy” or “the perennial wisdom”—or it may not.

It’s possible that none of us, individually, could articulate such a universal view. We’re trapped in our own worldview just as much as we are trapped in our body: we inhabit it, and we take it with us wherever we go. Perhaps each of us just has a small piece of it. Yet in a sense, if it exists, we must all be touched by it.

It is not “God,” because if it’s truly universal, it must also encompass, include, and account for atheism, as well as for the multiplicity of gods and of interpretations of God that humans have fought over ever since the awakening of human consciousness. But it possibly could help us to understand what the experience of there being a God is based on, i.e., a glimpse of the spirit at the heart of the one great meaning that encompasses all others. (Whereas atheists rightly decry the deification of this spirit, its personification and anthropomorphizing—as opposed to recognizing it as an impersonal force, that manifests itself in the continued unfolding of the universe, in all of its dimensions and details.)

So the feeling of awe is understandable, and the yearning to surrender to a higher purpose in life, to what “God calls on us to do,” if we can figure that out (or convince ourselves that we have). It is being moved by that unseen force, to act in perfect harmony with the universe, to express our unique identity, and to fulfill a purpose “mightier than ourselves.”

Can we get certainty around this? Probably not. Even the great saints and mystics had “doubts.” So whatever path we choose is fraught with uncertainty. This may lead somewhere or, on the other hand, may lead nowhere. But then the same is true for everything else, so we might as well go down this path for a while, to see where it leads. Through the Looking Glass, into Topsy-Turvy Land; or through the wormhole, a portal in time and space that leads to another dimension?

There is some evidence, actually, that what we live in on a daily basis is Topsy-Turvey Land; and that the worldview of “larger meaning” is what’s right side up. So we recognize, for example, that we live in a world of environmental peril, social injustice, and irrationalism; whereas in the larger picture it all makes sense, in a way that we do not yet fully understand. Maybe we’re here to do battle with these things; or maybe we just happen to run into them, and recognize that they are the source of humanity’s greatest sufferings.

If this is true, we must be on our guard about the blandishments of the world. Every religious tradition has also recognized this, and has sought to focus our attention of otherworldly goals, whether the form of personal salvation or a collective focus on a more “moral” way of life. Yet no sooner are these possibilities articulated, they are transformed into a new worldly orthodoxy, from being “born again” to Moslem fundamentalism, from being sold indulgences to being persuaded to drink the KoolAid, from “The Imitation of Christ” to Rick Warren’s “A Purpose-Driven Life.” These are based on deeply-felt emotions, but in the end fail to take into account the complexities of human existence, and the profound mystery and miracle of the universe.

So far what we have is a path of inquiry, and of dogmatic skepticism. If we can find a way to align ourselves with nature, with the appreciation of all things human, and with the possibility that, in the unfolding of the universe, the most meaningful is yet to come, we may perhaps begin to create a path that is worthy of consideration.

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