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The Meaning of Life"

By William Alkhoury January 9th, 2024

The Meaning of Life

Is it possible for a society to become sick? With widespread addictions, the opiate crisis, mass shootings, racism, violence, and record-high rates of depression and suicide, it seems that neurosis has become the new normal. Could it be that modern civilization fails to satisfy basic human needs? If so, what are those needs? We must go down to the very foundations of life and the real roots of humanity. For any merely superficial ordering of life that leaves its deepest needs unsatisfied is as ineffectual as if no attempt at order had ever been made. However we may differ in disposition and in education, the foundations of human nature are the same in everyone (I-Ching). Albert Camus (1955) observed, “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas and illusions that give them a reason for living (What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” And given the state of the world today this may be truer than ever.

Today many people feel that life has no purpose, no challenge, no obligation, and no escape from their boredom and pain. Many do not have the ability or lack the opportunity to express their unhappiness, desperation, confusion, frustration, or failure. And if they do, often they find their efforts to express their feelings as totally unacceptable, ignored, or met by defensive hostility, driving the person into further isolation, and reinforcing the belief of something being terribly wrong (Johnston, p. 172). The philosophy which is so important in each of us is our sense of what life honestly and deeply means.

Why is there a struggle for existence? All this pain and suffering around us, does it have a meaning? If there is no meaning to all this suffering in the world, then what is the point to living? How could we go on living if we were to admit that life is utterly meaningless? (Ford, 2007, p. xi) If it is all meaningless suffering, then wouldn't it be illogical or irrational to continue on? Surviving for what? Why do anything at all? Leo Tolstoy considered the possibility that if nothing matters, then perhaps suicide is the only justifiable act (Sanders, 1980, p. 3). If nothing matters, one is inclined to doubt that life is worth living. We would be justified in ending our lives. In practice, suicide is the ultimate conclusion of this line of thought (Sanders, 1980, p. 7).

Living without meaning is unacceptable. We cannot live without meaning. Human beings inevitably seek to understand life’s purpose. Human beings need an overarching context or system of meaning-making to make sense of the fragility and uncertainty of life (Ford, 2007). In fact, meaning is so important that when life loses meaning, suicide commonly ensues. When life loses meaning, we first go into depression. When life becomes sufficiently meaningless, we leave it altogether.

Meaning is the most fundamental question of our lives, always in the same form, always expressed by the questions: What is it all for? What is life? What does it lead to? These are thebig questions, the hardest to answer, the most urgent, and at the same time the most obscure (Solomon, p. 45). Many avoid it, and yet it is our reason that makes an answer possible and it is reason that makes the question necessary. Because there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amount to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest are games. As Albert Camus accepted, human beings cannot escape asking: what is the meaning of existence? Is this life all there is? What are those things that really make life worth living? Because “the secret of humanity’s being is not only to live, but to have something to live for” (Dostoyevsky, 1970).

The question of the value and meaning of existence is unlike any other question. To take questions about life’s meaning seriously is to pursue the truth about life, its meaningfulness or lack of it (Sanders, 1980, p. 2). Does life have meaning? Is life worth living? What is it to live life to the fullest? What is it to find this life meaningful? Why does everything which exists exist? Why do I exist? What is the practical application of a million galaxies? Isn’t it odd that anything exists? It requires effort, it requires energy, and it would have been so much easier for there to have been nothing at all.

Yet concern about the meaning of life is not only a matter of discerning the true from the false. What is also at stake is the tie between our beliefs and our actions (Sanders, p, 3). Meaning has to do with purpose, value, and importance and it is most often the main idea used to evaluate life as a whole (Sanders, 1980, p. 285). Meaning can defined as a sense of what makes life worth living. It is the answer, the reason, and the idea for which we can live and die. With this, we begin to see how the matter of life’s meaning is intertwined with other convictions about the world and living within it (Sanders, 1980, p. 3). This is a question about the ultimate context of life. In other words, what consequences does life’s meaning or lack of it have for the way life is lived? (Sanders, p. 3) To find in ourselves what makes life worth living is risky business, for it means that once we know it we must seek it. It also means that without it life will be valueless (Sanders, p. 19). And today, the modern person has the means to live, but often has no meaning to live for.

When we ask “What is the meaning of life? We want answers that are more than just an explanation or a description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for a justification for our existence. We are asking for a justification for why life is as it is, and not even the most complete explanation or description of how things are ordered can answer this quite different question (Sanders, p. 134). These questions concern how we exist in the world, how we should view existence, and how we ought to exist. These questions ask what it is to be alive and be human in this world. These questions help us find our way and direction. To know the meaning of life is to know how to live (Sanders, p. 116).

Yet if this is the nature of the question, what would an answer look like? (Sanders, p. 132) All of us must ask ourselves, but what would we take as an answer? Where to begin? This brings us to the question. As a good starting point, the personal search for meaning usually results in adopting one of three viewpoints:

(1) Nihilism: The conviction that human existence is without meaning, value, or purpose. It's all pointless, life is meaningless, and so is the statement that it is so.

(2) Theism: Belief in an infinite, personal god(s) who is the creator and sustainer of all things. To believe in a god(s) is to see that life has a meaning.

(3) Existential Atheism: We can create meaning through the goals we choose, the choices we make, and the values we live by. We create meaning in our lives through our choices.

Although a good starting point it is not enough to tackle questions of ultimate meaning and just create grand theories. People are struggling through their lives, suffering, rejoicing, searching, and dying. We have an obligation to ask: what practical difference does the theory make? How will our lives be different? This brings us to the next step: How can helping support be given in the search for meaning, which every person faces? (Lukas, p. 12) One fact has to be kept in mind: meaning can never be given—it must be discovered and created. What can be done is to describe the process of finding and creating meaning (Lukas, p. 12). The meaning of life may be both infinitely abstract and exceptionally concrete (Lukas, p. 12). Based on Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy three levels of meaning can be distinguished.

(1) Ultimate Meaning (i.e. Ultimate Reality / Truth)

(2) The Ultimate Meaning of the individual’s unique life

(3) The Meaning of the Moment

Beginning with the first level, ultimate meaning is found through participation in a universal order of being (Graber, p. 178). Some call it God, Allah, the Tao, the Laws of Physics, the Ultimate Whyness, the ultimate question of why something and not nothing? And what does it mean that there is something and not nothing? Leo Tolstoy asked: why are we here? And what for? The question "Why?" is the fulcrum on which the question of meaning hinges (Ford, p. 1). It is the ultimate value, importance, purpose, and reason for existence. The ultimate meaning and truth can never be comprehended in its entirety, only pursued to the best of one's ability (Graber, p. 178). We may get a glimpse of the ultimate meaning through peak experiences, revelations, and epiphanies, but we will never comprehend it fully. However, ultimate meaning can be approached from the original three viewpoints:

(1) Nihilism: There is no ultimate meaning.

(2) Existential Atheism: We are challenged to bravely and courageously accept the fact that there is no objective truth or ultimate meaning in the world and instead we are responsible to invent, create, impose, and give life meaning. It is our responsibility to give meaning to the meaningless. Because it has no use, it has a use, which may sound like a paradox, but is not (Watts, p. 125). P.D. Ouspensky professed, “It is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere that it begins to have meaning” (1993, p. 82). ("The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live" E.M. Cioran) The atheist will typically say we can never know the ultimate truth if there is a God or not, so we have to live as if there is no God. And yet the interesting paradox of atheism is by living as if there is no God this could also be interpreted as an admission of God's perfection. God is so perfect, we don't need God. And as Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God then everything is free. Which is right where the existentialist begins. Ironically, nihilism and atheism can provide life with a meaning, if one actually dedicates one's life to the proposition that life has no meaning.

(3) Theism: There is an ultimate meaning and all we have to accept are the limitations of the human mind to understand the ultimate meaning in purely rational terms. All we have to accept are the limitations of human knowledge just as Socrates was considered the wisest of his time because he knew what he did not know. As we hear when people say the more I learn the more I realize how little I actually know. Thus, we do not create but discover meaning and there can be an objective and ultimate meaning in the world.

The second level is the ultimate meaning of a unique, singular, and individual life. What is open to human beings is the discernment and experience of special meaning contents of one’s life (Lukas, p. 14). Meanings penetrate the total span of life (Lukas, p. 14). What exist are the goals reached, the aims attained, the sufferings and experiences harvested; in sum, the total of all that has made life worthwhile (Lukas, p. 15). Similarly, we may get a glimpse of our unique, ultimate meaning through peak experiences, but we will never comprehend it fully at least not until we reach the end of our lives. Only then will we be able to look back at the totality of our unfolding life pattern and say, "Aha! That was the ultimate purpose of my life. I fulfilled it. I lived it well and it was a good life." If you lean towards atheism you may see your life as a "blank canvas" in which you are free to paint, create, and write your life story. Compared to theism you might see your life as a sculptor. The artist Michelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material” to reveal the ultimate pattern of meaning that is already waiting to be found. Like an acorn that turns into an oak tree and already has an image, blueprint, and direction of what it is to become. The individual discovers the ultimate purpose and meaning of their lives. So the question of the meaning of one’s life is not just a matter of discovery; it is also an important act of creation (Solomon, p. 52).

The third level, the meaning of the moment, is much easier to grasp. In most situations it is nothing grand, just the daily tasks awaiting us. Some moments offer bigger choices than others; some moments are subtler than others; none are repeatable (Graber, p. 178). This is the actual concrete level of meaning located in the here and now. It is the present meaning of the moment. Any great meanings of life can only be realized if they are taken in through moments, specific situations, each of which is unique and cannot be repeated and contains its own unique and unrepeated quality of meaning (Lukas p. 16).

In the final analysis, everything can be taken away from a person but the one thing that cannot take away is the last of human freedoms: the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way (Frankl, 1984). Humanity finds the meaning of human existence in freedom of choice. The only choice we do not have is that of having choices. We always choose because we're always free. We are condemned and determined to be free. You cannot not make a choice, because not making a choice is still a choice (Sartre, 1943). And that means our first and last choice is to always say YES To Life! Life is never lacking a meaning, meaning is always present, and life has meaning under all circumstances. But unless we use the opportunity to fulfill the meaning in any situation, it will pass and be gone forever.

If there is a God, apparently God gave us free will to reject God, because without free will, love would lose its genuine nature, authenticity, meaning, and significance, becoming mechanical and robotic. Love that lacks free will would become devoid of any emotional depth. Love, by its very nature, must be given and freely chosen without any external pressure or force. The same principle applies to morality. Both love and morality require the exercise of free will in order to be authentic and meaningful. Without responsible choice, morality cannot exist. The existentialist says there could be a God, but it wouldn't make a difference if there was a God or not. We still have to live as if there is no God. Even if you believe in Jesus, you still have to choose to bring Jesus into your life as your savior. But then our salvation is not with Jesus it is your choice that saves you. In other words, nobody can save you but yourself. Even if life is not meaningful in itself, it is the individual that must create meaning. Humanity is an interpretational and meaning-making species. Meaning-making is the defining characteristic of human beings. Thus, the giving of meaning to life is the task of humanity. Humanity is responsible to inject meaning into the meaningless. And let’s suppose life is a pure determinism awaiting discovery, this too would rob life of meaning.

Meaning is not a given, we must seek it. Nothing has meaning unless it is given meaning. "The meaning only lives when we experience it in and through ourselves" (Carl Jung). The reality that counts is your experience, and you are the sole creator of your experience (Yalom, p. 257). Everything that you experience doesn't exist unless you experience it (Yalom). But if there is a meaning, it is an unconditional meaning, and there is no reason to doubt the meaning of even the most miserable life. Every life, every situation, every condition, even the worst of conditions, and until our last breath always holds a potential meaning. And whether you are an atheist or a theist life is never lacking a meaning. As Nietzsche (1882) said, and for the ancient Greeks who loved life so passionately, we must redeem ourselves with the sacred Yes to Life expressed through Amor Fati! No matter how miserable life may be we must affirm the sacred, "Yes to life!" in spite of its tragedy. "Yes to Life!" blesses everything exactly as it is. Through "Yes to Life!" we realize life can be only precisely what it is and cannot be otherwise. "Yes to Life!" cures us of our emptiness. It restores us. It redeems us.

What is the ultimate meaning of life? The answers are within the person. Whatever makes you content, satisfied, and secure in life—that is the answer to the question of existence. Ambition, goals to achieve, love, creativity, and hope in the future make life worth living (Kubler-Ross, 1975, p. 103). The meaning of life is to give life meaning. However, Logo-therapy asserts it is not we who ask, "What is the meaning of life?" but should realize that it is you yourself that is being questioned. Life is putting its problems to you, and it is up to you to answer and respond to these questions with your life (Frankl, xxiii). Life is a task and the meaning of life depends upon whether or not we fulfill the demands placed upon us by our tasks (Frankl, 1959, p. 109).

Our lives exist, the Greeks believed, in order that we may complete an unfinished task and it is by that task that our lives are given meaning. Maslow encouraged us to reframe life as a “developmental journey,” see creative potential in problems, see obstacles as stepping stones, imagine we have a purpose in life with challenges and obstacles to overcome in order to fulfill the purpose. Life is the ultimate mystery. For what would be the point of living if you already knew what was going to happen? If you always see the road ahead of you, it’s not worth the trip. If there is a God not even God knows the future. God may know every possible future outcome, every possibility, and can adjust to any free willed decision we make. God can still carry out any of God’s plans without interference, but not even God knows for certain what we will choose or create. Mystery can give our lives meaning. We don't explain life; we live it.

Integrating the three levels of meaning into one’s life can be done through drawing upon the principles of Existential Positive Psychology (EPP) helping to develop a more holistic understanding of purpose, values, and experiences. In doing so, one can live a more fulfilling and meaningful life, even in the face of challenges, adversity, or difficulty. Some ways to incorporate Existential Positive Psychology into the integration of the three levels of meaning include:

  1. The Golden Triangle: Wong's Golden Triangle is a framework and model that helps the individual discover Ultimate Meaning through the first element of Faith in a transcendental reality and intrinsic value of life. Secondly, Unique Personal Meaning is found through identifying life goals, values, or passions more important than the self. Unique Personal Meaning provides a sense of direction and motivation, a sense of purpose and significance in life, and helps individuals cope with life's challenges. Virtue refers to the development of positive character traits and involves living in accordance with one's values and beliefs, and contributing to the well-being of others. Lastly, Wong’s third component of Relationship, Mutual Trust, and Care aligns with the Meaning of the Moment which includes experiencing joy, contentment, activities, engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and practicing gratitude. The Meaning of the Moment helps us to discover the relational world in which we engage in and develop meaningful relationships with others.
  2. The Threefold Nature of the Journey of Personal Development: Wong's Threefold Nature of the Journey of Personal Development is a framework that describes the process of personal growth and development in three stages comparable to the three levels of Meaning. The Way Upward involves the spiritual world or Ultimate Meaning in which we transcend ourselves in serving something greater than ourselves. Secondly, the Way Inward or the Unique Personal Meaning involves the personal world of assuming responsibility to fully develop our potential to fulfill our unique meaning and purpose. And finally, the Way Outward or the Meaning of the Moment involves the relational world in which we engage in meaningful relationships.
  3. The PURE Model: By focusing on the four components of the PURE model the individual has a useful framework for understanding the factors that contribute to human flourishing and for guiding personal growth and development. The PURE Model helps in finding one’s Unique Personal Meaning or finding one’s unique, innate, and creative potentials as a life-process.
  4. ABCDE Intervention / The Iron Triangle: The ABCDE Intervention and the Iron Triangle are useful frameworks that contribute to the Meaning of the Moment by confronting and overcoming adversity in order to grow and develop. By focusing on developing resilience, commitment, and a sense of mastery, individuals can face life's challenges with greater confidence affirming life in spite of everything.

Meaning-Centered Therapy and Existential Positive Psychology offer us the means and tools for promoting individual healing, freedom, and creativity facilitating and acting as a catalyst for positive social change. Modern Western society has lost touch with the spiritual aspect of life, which is an integral part of the human experience. This spiritual poverty lies at the core of all human suffering causing people to feel disconnected, unhappy, and unfulfilled, contributing to a range of social problems, including environmental degradation, social inequality, and political instability. To overcome this spiritual poverty, people need to reconnect with the natural world, embrace the mystical and spiritual aspects of life, and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach to living. People need to move beyond the narrow confines of rationality and materialism and embrace a more expansive and spiritually meaningful vision of life. The key to overcoming spiritual poverty is to develop a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of all things and to cultivate a sense of awe and wonder for the mysteries of the universe. By embracing a more spiritual and mystical approach to life, people can transcend their limited individual selves and tap into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. Society's spiritual poverty needs people to reconnect with their spiritual selves and the natural world in order to overcome the sense of disconnection and meaninglessness that characterizes modern Western society. The power of individual transformation, personal growth, and self-exploration are the keys to creating positive social change.

Closing Quotes
  • "What does it mean to exist or to be? What does it mean to be alive?" - Martin Heidegger
  • "To find life meaningful only when we have seen it is without purpose." - Alan Watts
  • "Freedom is the source from which all significations and all values spring. It is the original condition of all justification of existence." - Simon de Beauvoir
  • "The difficulty in life is the choice." - George Moore
  • "The meaning of life cannot be told; it has to happen to a person." - Ira Progoff
References

Camus, A. (1942). The Myth of Sisyphus. Gallimard.

Dostoyevsky, F. (1970). The Brothers Karamazov. Bantam Books.

Ford, Dennis. The Search for Meaning. University of California Press. 2007.

Frankl, Viktor. The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. Vintage Books. 1980.

Frankl, Viktor. Quotation.

Graber, Ann. Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy. Wyndham Hall Press. 2010.

Johnston, Jerry. Why Suicide? Oliver Nelson. 1987.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth. Death: The Final Stage of Growth. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1975.

Lukas, Elizabeth. The Therapist and the Soul. Purpose Research. 2015.

Nietzsche, F. (1882). The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft). (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Vintage Books. (Original work published 1882)

Outpensky, P.D. (1993). Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practice Guide to Creative Career Design. Laurence G. Boldt. Penguin Group, Arkana.

Sanders, Steven. The Meaning of Life: Questions, Answers, and Analysis. 1980.

Sartre, J.-P. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1943)

Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 4th ed. Wadsworth: Thomason Learning. 2001.

Solomon, Robert C. The Big Question: A Short Introduction to Philosophy. Harcourt Brace & Company. 1998.

Sutphen, Dick. Quotation.

Watts, Alan. The Book: On the Taboo Again Knowing Who You Are. Pantheon Books. 1966.

Wilhelm/Baynes. I-Ching: Book of Changes. Hexagram 48: p. 186.

Wong, P.T.P. (2012). The meaning-centered approach to well-being and resilience: The Golden Triangle, the PURE Model, the ABCDE Intervention, the Iron Triangle, and the Threefold Nature. Journal of Personal Development, 19(2), 1-17.