Answering Life Today

What’s the Meaning of Your Life?

Phillip Herndon
May 15, 2013 · 3 min read

On Svbtle the other day, Ben Yu asked, “What do you live for?” Yu believes that the world is absurd and doubts there’s any objective meaning to life. Assuming this, what do you live for? And why?

I recently finished Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, so I’ve been thinking in a similar vein. I’ve also been looking for an excuse to write about Frankl’s book. So here we go.

Viktor Frankl was a 20th century psychologist and a survivor of multiple Nazi concentration camps. He dedicated his study to helping people find meaning in their lives. Frankl doesn’t start his book by asking, “What do you live for?” but begins with the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and how can someone discern it?

Frankl turns the question inside out pretty early in his work. It’s the wrong approach, he says.

“What do you live for?” is a bit better. It implies that there are as many answers as people.

Yu throws out a few potential responses: legacy, hedonism, fear of death. Strong motivators. To Frankl, the final answer isn’t very important. It’s more important that there is an answer.

But I like how Frankl continues to develop the question. He doesn’t ask, “what is the meaning of life?” or “what do I live for?” It doesn’t really make sense for us to ask what’s the meaning of life. There’s too much about life that’s absurd, as Yu rightly points out.

The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posted to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’

Frankl writes that we shouldn’t ask what the meaning of life is, instead life asks us every day: “What is the meaning of your life?”

This question does two things that I think Yu’s framing doesn’t.

First, it welcomes change. Changing what you live for sounds mighty jarring. More precisely defining your personal meaning is less so.

Secondly, it’s not as active. Living for something requires a ton of personal conviction. Meaning, though, can be external. Meaning can be thrust upon you by your circumstances just as much as you can craft meaning in a life.

Frankl rejects that there’s finality or universality to life’s meaning. Personal meaning is a continuing search, and man must consider it throughout life.

For a long time I had been framing the question wrong. I struggled with “what is the meaning of life” and ended up deciding that searching for objective meaning is fruitless. I thought for awhile that leaving it at that was enough.

But through the past two years or so, I’ve begun to believe that the internal angst isn’t a lack of epiphany, it’s the drive to define how I am answering life’s question.

Is a hard question, but I’ll give it a go. What is the meaning of my life?

I haven’t been considering this form of the question for very long. And I haven’t come to a full answer yet. But I’m beginning:

Today I am responsible for being a teacher. I’m learning slowly that being a good student doesn’t qualify you to teach. Instead, teaching is its own hill. I’ll never be done being a student, though.

Maybe one day I’ll be really good at both.

That’s what I’m striving toward at least and, I think, it’s the beginning of meaning.

    Phillip Herndon

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    At work I make neat things happen on the Internet. At life I mostly listen to Morrissey songs. @phillh