What Makes Life Meaningful?
This post is a brief look at what creates meaning in our lives. And a list of a few of the containers in which the gift of meaning is to be found.
To watch this post as a video click here .
Meaning is not the province of reason, it is an irrational phenomenon. We cannot arrive at meaning (in the sense we use the word here) through a process of logical deduction.
Meaning is not quantative, it cannot be measured using a number. Contrary to what we are led to believe by our consumer driven culture.
By way of example:
Beware the illusion of More
No doubt there is a significant qualitative (and accordingly meaningful) difference between having no money and having a million dollars. Having a million dollars buys you a certain amount of freedom and with that freedom, choice. With choice comes responsibility as well, but that’s a story for another day.
We can clearly understand the difference, the meaningful difference, between having nothing and having something relatively substantial, in this example a million dollars. However the relationship of meaning breaks down between a million dollars and, let’s say, 2 million dollars. 2 million dollars does not confer a life that is twice as meaningful as one million dollars.
Once we accept this (not as obvious as it may seem in our insanely materialist society) we can logically extend this into every other aspect of life, be it material or functional. Job, home, car, holidays, family etc.
Having a home is very meaningful. However contrary to what is suggested by our consumerist media, having a bigger home, with twice as many bedrooms and twice as many mod-cons is not twice as meaningful.
Meaning cannot be measured in this way that is an illusion. It is a trap we have fallen into in the insanely materialist time we live in. No doubt it is better, generally, to have than not to have, but having more is not consequently and proportionality better. We only believe it is and this illusion, as we know by now, or should know, leads to a lot of unhappiness for us and the world as a whole.
What Exactly is Meaning?
Fortunately it is not something that easy to define. If it were it would not be meaningful. Meaning you see comes from not-knowing, not from knowing. The moment we know something in its totality, or think we do, it becomes less meaningful.
So to some degree meaning is related to mystery.
By extension if you believe in the concept of God, every mystery is to some extent a manifestation of God in the world. And the greatest mystery of all is God.
If not, meaning you don’t subscribe to the concept of God, then you can substitute the word unknown and arrive pretty much at the same place.
Although we can’t fully define meaning there are a few things we can say about it:
Meaning, like spirit, is the irreducible intangible essence of life, without which we would simply be mechanistic meat machines.
Meaning simply, is what makes life worth living.
Meaning as we noted above is not measurable, it is not quantative. Rather it is qualitative; it has a feeling tone and quality to it.
Meaning is something which evokes an emotional response in us, which makes us feel something.
It is related to our humanity in a deep and fundamental way.
Meaning is what lets us know that we are alive and that it is good to be alive.
Where do we Find Meaning?
Throughout the long history of our race on this planet certain acts, certain rituals, have become the containers for the expression of that which is most important, most meaningful in our lives and in our world.
These are referred to in transpersonal psychology as archetypal. They are ways of being in the world that seem to predate history, they have always been, and from our earliest cultural memories we have known them.
I list below five of these as a sample of the better known ways in which we connect with something transcendent; and meaning is able to enter our lives. (Naturally this list is not meant as anything approaching complete.)
Friendship: we are social beings and the connection we make with a real friend brings something very special, meaningful and precious into our lives. From our first childhood friendships in school, to our teenage friends to friends we make as adults.
We frequently remember certain times in our lives most clearly by the people or person we spent that time with. In friendship our experience is lifted from the purely personal into the space that the friendship creates. And as Sartre points out it is in the eyes of the other that I see myself defined.
Our lives would be a lot poorer but for the presence of a few really good friends.
Romance: (I’ll leave this one to the poets):
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, ‘ and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness ‘
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Or another favourite…
My beloved put his hand through the keyhole and my bowels were moved at his touch. I rose to open to my beloved. My hands dropped with myrrh and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.
Marriage: traditionally marriage, but of course I include any permanent union with your soul mate. The coming together with another human being where your previously individual fates become joined in the union of your relationship.
Committing yourself body and soul to a relationship where the union is placed over and above your individual prejudices. Sharing in the good times and the hardships with one other person so that a level of real love, understanding, compassion, caring, nurturing and empathy develops that transcends our ability (or need) to express it in words.
Knowing another as you know yourself and caring for them more than you care for yourself, this is what makes life meaningful. Makes life worth living.
Children: it is the eyes of a child more than anywhere else that the overwhelming, unambiguous and absolute proof of the divine exists. And this is never more evident than in the eyes of your own child.
One of life’s greatest privileges is the contact we have with children. Children remind us of everything that is good about the world, why any hardship we need to bear is worth bearing, why to question the value or purpose of life is the most ludicrous of all questions (that being the stated intention of this blog notwithstanding).
The value of the child is universal and transcends the personal.
The above being said having your own child is truly the profoundest of spiritual experiences. For in having your own child you realise and have to face the inescapable truth that your own life is now only of secondary importance. As a parent your life is as nothing in comparison with the life of your child.
When the significance of this most dramatic of facts is assimilated that is really that for the narcissistic ego. Hence forth the ego fights a rearguard action and the undeniable value of the totality of life becomes increasingly established.
Self Actualisation: or as my friend Oran Cohen likes to put it, living your genius. The process of giving expression to our creative spirit, or the universal creative spirit as it is manifest in our unique selves, is a sacred responsibility.
Jung, like the Gnostics and Meister Eckhart, believed that God is unconscious. That it is only in us and our consciousness that God becomes conscious. This is a metaphor which rings true for me.
All potentiality already exists latently otherwise nothing could be actualised. But that being said latent and actual are as different as the words imply. We (you and me) need to bring what exists in us latently into the world.
To do this requires the courage of a lion, the strength of an elephant, the agility of a leopard and the cunning of a serpent. Most of all though it requires a deep and un-abiding love of for self and a desire to repay that most precious gift with every fibre of your being.
The greatest gift you can make to your creator is to be yourself.
It is not simply coincidental that four of the five containers of meaning listed intrinsically involve ‘other’ people. I am struck by the essential need for us to move from a purely personal orientation to the world to one which embraces others and the community at large. As far as I can make out this is a minimum requirement for a healthy psyche.
To the extent that we expand ourselves to embrace others we grow psychically and spiritually, and conversely, to the extent that we don’t, we shrink into meaninglessness. I don’t know why this is and I certainly don’t embrace any moralistic view of why it should be thus, but nevertheless there it is.
I hope you will forgive the necessarily brief and incomplete nature of the list I have presented and treat it, if nothing else, as a finger pointing to the stars rather than as the stars themselves.
Until next time,
Go in peace,