Friday, August 6, 2010

What's the Meaning of This?

I often describe my personal philosophy as happy existentialism. I like the description because it's clear, specific and succinct. In fact, it's so clear specific and succinct that people either get it exactly without further explanation, or they don't get it at all regardless of of how much I explain.

In essence (no pun intended), existentialists operate under the basic belief that life, the universe and everything just are; there is no great purpose, no higher calling, no intrinsic meaning... to anything. Some find this perspective depressing responding with angst and hopelessness: life has lost all of its meaning. Existentialist writers can be dark and morose: everything we do is pointless.

When I describe myself as a happy existentialist, I usually get polite nods or blank stares. I sometimes hear: isn't that an oxymoron? However, the best response I ever got to my statement came from my friend Jonathan who said, "Yeah, there's nothing more stupid than an unhappy existentialist!"

Unhappy Existentialism is Stupid
And that's the point exactly. If life, the universe and everything have no intrinsic meaning, then what anything means is completely up to the individual (i.e., me and you). Further, it is not what is that's makes us happy or unhappy, it's the meaning that we ascribe to it that makes us happy or unhappy.

For example, if you were lying on your deathbed, how you felt about it would very much depend on how you defined the purpose and meaning of life. Is it to learn all you can and then move on to the next one? Is it to live well and be rewarded in heaven? Is it to build some great and lasting work that will serve as a permanent testament to all you were? Is it to enjoy close relationships with family and friends? Is it to look really good, all the time?

At the point of death, the purpose and meaning that you ascribe to life will prove the difference between remorse and rejoicing, desperation and delight, waiting for the axe to fall and waiting to get on the bus. In fact, throughout our lives, in smaller and bigger ways, it is the meaning that we ascribe to situations and events that determines our levels of happiness, not the situations or events themselves. Hence, given any situation or event, everyone responds differently, not because the situation or event is different, but because the meaning that they ascribe to it (their beliefs about it) are all different.

So, to Jonathan's point, if you're an existentialist and unhappy about it, well, you're just not that good at thinking.

But Life Does Have Meaning!
All that said, almost everyone I know does not subscribe to existential philosophy: people believe that life does have intrinsic meaning and purpose. Further, people tend to believe that the meaning and purpose are defined outside themselves: by God, by the gods, by an intelligent universe, by alien experimenters, by the company, by great grandpa Ernie.

When encountering bad situations, I often hear people offer consolation saying things like, "You know, everything happens for a reason." or "You may not see it now, but something good will come of this."

In essence, what they're trying to do is to cheer you up by changing the meaning of what happened and appealing to your sensibilities that tell you, "Yes, there is some meaning or purpose to this, something greater than myself, something that I don't yet understand, but will."

There is something comforting in knowing that life has meaning and purpose greater than ourselves and our understanding. We want there to be meaning and purpose. We tend to congregate with others who share the same sense of meaning and purpose. We go to church. We go to temple. We pray. We do yoga. We go to school. We have families. We do good works. We travel. We study.

There is a parable I remember from way back called the Caterpillar Pillar. To me, it speaks to the experience that many of us share in seeking meaning and purpose outside ourselves. Here's my quick synopsis:
One day, a wondering caterpillar seeking the meaning of life, looks up to see thousands of other caterpillars climbing up a great pillar into the sky. He crawls to the base of the pillar asking others what's going on and is told that the meaning of life awaits them at the top of the pillar. So, he joins the crawling throng.

At first, it's great to be in the company of so many seekers. But as he get's higher and higher, the crawling becomes more agressive, caterpillars stepping on each other to climb higher. So he too begins to climb more aggressively.

Further up the pillar, he begins to notice caterpillars who are crawling down. "Don't bother," they say, "there's nothing up there!"

But he continues to climb... and climb... and climb... When he gets to the top, he finds nothing but caterpillars. Some hold steadfastly to their positions at the top. Some, unwilling to endure the climb down, jump. Others turn to crawl back down. He joins them.

In the end, the caterpillar crawls away from the Caterpillar Pillar and learns to become a butterfly.
I spent many years seeking meaning and purpose, crawling up pillar after pillar. I climbed the pillar of Christianity. I climbed the pillar of family. I climbed the pillar of career. I climbed the pillar of good works.

Climbing each of these pillars made a lot of sense to me. After all, life must have had a purpose and meaning, both of which were clearly beyond me. Therefore, climbing a pillar in the company of others was the way to go.

But no longer...

Where Do You Get Your Meaning?
Regardless of where you get your core sense of meaning and purpose (your core belief system), it's useful to know that these are the very things that determine your happiness. Sure, there are variants and smaller beliefs that come into play from time to time. However, what makes you generally happy or generally unhappy all comes down to what life means to you.

So, what is the meaning of life? Of your life? Is it well grounded or something that you haven't yet figured out? If you haven't figured it out, what meaning and purpose occupy the temporary position? Are you looking for meaning and purpose? If so, where? If you have well-defined meaning and purpose, who's defined them? What do they depend upon? What would happen if the things on which you meaning and purpose depend, changed or disappeared? What's the meaning of all this?

Happy Friday!

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