The meaning of life, whatever that may be, faces a curious conundrum. Say that it has already been determined, and we bemoan our immutable state of affairs, that our lives can have no deviation from what the fates have in store for us, that the cards in our preassigned deck are stacked against us, or that the dice having been already cast, makes us prisoners of the path we must walk. But conversely, if told that life is ultimately meaningless, that in the grand scheme of it all, we are so insignificant and unimportant that we have virtually no influence on the cosmos, then suddenly, there’s a sort of desperate void in everything we do. Why do anything when race, identity and consciousness are but concepts that on the highest level, have next to no impact on the universe?
So how to answer the question? The only legitimately honest answer is the latter. Life has no ultimate meaning, except for a few directives that are already bestowed on us: to survive and reproduce. Only humans have evolved a brain that allows for sufficient abstraction such that unlike lesser animals, we cannot simply be contented with merely surviving. We question who we are and why we are here, and the same brain that helps us arrive at these answers can also be persuaded to end its existence. What we do today is not different from what we used to do in the distant past. We occupy ourselves with work and play, marry or stay single, start a family or help look after one, and then ultimately, we die believing we’ve achieved something, and that someone will benefit from our legacy. It’s a repetitive cycle repeated for eons, and will be repeated in the far future. Exactly what are we supposed to get out of life then?
This is why man had to invent religion, of which each faith has its own origin story, so that some kind of meaning is given for each young life to aspire towards. We are told that a benevolent (or capricious) creator oversees us, that we are fulfilling a part of his grand plans and that he (or they) care for our mortal well-being. But we didn’t stop here. We’ve also invented various cultural icons – pledges of allegiances, school songs, philosophies and arts – to make us believe we are invested in a world that is orderly and that answers to our needs (it doesn’t). Whether you go to Japan, Africa or Iceland, each country has created its own superstition, myths and symbols, and despite being truly nonsense, these absurdities give their people a sense of meaning and comfort, and a reason to be proud of their traditions.
It’s why orientation, icebreakers and bonding camps are so important. They give a sense of belonging and purpose where none initially exists, and to cunningly influence (by peer pressure) the newcomers to form new belief systems about the place they are in and how it all ties into their self-worth. We want to feel that we belong to something because the alternative – realising that there’s nothing out there – is far scarier. Our social structure is artificially built from start to end to infuse meaning into our lives. The compulsory education pathway comprises of targets and goals set for us by the government, and further down, the workforce is deliberately calibrated to give a sense of career progression. You eventually move up the ranks, and are often encouraged to keep climbing the ladder. Likewise, money is in itself only a piece of paper, but society chooses to give it value and meaning, and so hard cash can become tied to our meaning of life. Everything’s as deliberate and as false as it gets but there’s no denying its effectiveness or necessity.
And even the jobs and hobbies we call meaningful are often nothing but clever disguises. A policeman may take great pride in his job and see it as a respectful duty, but what he fails to sadly realise is that it is the criminals who give his job (and his life) meaning. For the policeman to be happy, he must hope for the criminals to commit all manners of atrocities so that only when he locks them up, he can feel a swell of satisfaction. Likewise, a doctor must depend on all manners of debilitating diseases and infections that call for his expertise so that his job is meaningful. People must die, must fall sick and suffer so that what he does has purpose. Similarly, a general who lives in a world without war is probably better off dead. There would be no soldiers to train and bully, no recruits to send off to die and no missiles to be fired. He is as useful as the fifth wheel on a wagon.
Though there’s nothing inherently meaningful in anything we do, and while we are often guilty of mindlessly moving from one distraction to the next, we do get to author much of our lives. We have enough freedom and capacity of thought to direct the quality of life we wish to lead. And honestly? There’s not much we must possess to lead fulfilling lives. Our genuine needs are simple, but it’s modernity, advertisements and repeated comparisons that cause our dissatisfaction. Life can be meaningful as long as there’s at least one person we can always respond deeply to, a reasonable job that doesn’t go against our principles and a place to return. After all, haven’t the best stories always been the simple ones?
So, have you thought about (HYTA) what the meaning of life is?