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Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Universe

Sitting at a bar in Singapore years ago, a friend of mine told me that his life was over since he’d had kids and they had grown. He told me he believed his life now was meaningless. The only thing left for him to do was to die. I am quite sure he believed what he said at the time.

My friend’s comment made me sad for him. I was sad because he believed we aren’t more than just animals with a biological imperative to fulfill and then die.

His comments caught me off guard and I wasn’t able to respond to him then though I knew he was wrong. I’ve thought a lot about his words over the years. He has since passed away—he’d retired from Singapore, bought a bookshop in Ireland and bought and sold the old books he loved, and was happy for several years before he contracted lung cancer.

The thing I found interesting is that his actions belied the things he’d told me in the bar that afternoon so long ago. He’d done things he’d wanted to do—made choices that fulfilled him and made him happy.

His initial comments though, echo thoughts I think we all have at times: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Those of us who are sentient beings have asked those questions or ones like them many times in our lives. This questioning represents our search for meaning in a harsh universe. Religion attempts to deal with those questions. Religion gives man hope and answers questions about the meaning of life.

That’s nice . . .

But, if we don’t belong to a church/temple/synagogue/mosque and are not particularly religious, how do we explain our lives and the choices we make in a universe that appears to us to be meaningless? Is it a personal philosophy of life? Is it our life commitment to work and family? What gives life meaning for us?

Again, I think philosophy may be able to help with these questions. Existential philosophers stress the idea that we are free to create ourselves. As Sartre wrote, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, we exist first and create our essence through our choices. So, we are the sum total of all of our decisions; and the choices we make comprise our “essence.” We are always becoming because we are always creating our essence. The only time we are finished and can define our essence is when we die, for that is when we stop “becoming.” Sartre viewed consciousness as fluid, ever changing.

A critical side issue of making choices is that our choices may affect others—we must consider that we are free to choose, but we must not make choices that limit the freedom of others. Also, once we choose something, the potential for others to choose that also is now possible. So, we are responsible in many ways when making choices/decisions.

This may sound easy but, when you consider what Sartre meant, it is difficult to live in “good faith,” and be true to ourselves. It is all too easy to live in “bad faith” by letting others make decisions for us or by following the herd. We also must not choose not to choose. We must deal with the fact that we are free to create ourselves. We are responsibile for making the choices which constantly create us; it is totally up to us. If we shirk this responsibility, then we live in “bad faith.”

This responsibility to choose for ourselves and not let others choose for us, and at the same time not choose something that limits others, helps explain Sartre’s statement: “we are condemned to be free.” We also must not choose to not choose. So, we must deal with the fact that we are free to create ourselves. The responsibility to make the choices which create us and are totally up to us.

I don’t advocate becoming an existentialist (which in and of itself Sartre would say is “bad faith”), but I do think one can get something from the philosophy. We can’t wait for meaning to come to us in our lives. We must create meaning by action—by doing things. By making authentic choices.

Although I’m not really an existentialist I have done this all of my life. I have always chosen the path that seemed to go against the norm. I always chose the “road less traveled” as Robert Frost would say. These choices gave me a life that has been quite different from the norm. Every chance I had I chose the different path.

Certainly, in terms of freedom we are limited by our social-economic situation and by a multitude of other factors. Yet within those limitations we still need to exercise our freedom; we must constantly “create” ourselves through our choices. I believe that is how we “find” meaning in our lives. In fact, we shouldn’t say “find” meaning. We should say “create” meaning. We create our purpose rather than go with the flow.

As much as there are ugly and horrific things in this world, there are beautiful things as well. We simply need to find the things that work for us—that put meaning in our lives. Nature, the various arts (painting, music, drama, dance, and etc.), sports, community service, reading . . . whatever it is. My guitar playing has helped me keep my sanity since I was in middle school back in the ‘50’s. My involvement in martial arts has given me a strong focus over the years, and travel, climbing, skiing, scuba-diving, motorcycles, and writing has made life richer. The key is to make choices, do things, that put meaning in your own life rather than do what you think people expect you to do.

Singapore American School Cafeteria

My friend, whom I wrote about at the beginning of this blog post, pulled himself out of his deterministic, fatalistic funk by creating things in his life that had meaning for him. Moving to Ireland, buying a bookstore and dealing in the old and unusual books he loved, making a life that had meaning for him worked and he was happy.

There is an element of risk in this. But if we take charge and “do” something then that is what makes life worth living isn’t it? Risk is part of the game.

Again, I don’t advocate existentialism, but I find aspects of the philosophy that work for me. Perhaps you might as well.

In one of my next blog posts I’ll discuss how we might determine if our choices are authentic.

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