It’s a question that philosophers have sought to answer for centuries: what does it all mean? Why are we here? What’s the purpose of life?
Such questions may cause us to furrow our brows or to sigh in frustration, yet we cannot help but ask them. All of us — young or old, religious or non-religious, scientist, writer, athlete, and everyone in between — have entertained these questions.
Perhaps not to the extent of a philosopher, but certainly in passing, and especially so in suffering.
We have lived the day-to-day reflections of the answers — or the lack thereof. We agonize over jobs, family, and friends; we ponder the significance of our actions; we contemplate what the future will bring. It is the answers to our questions of purpose that bring us both boundless joy and crippling anxiety from moment to moment.
And all of these worries and fears stem from the same fundamental need to have some sort of meaning in life — in our life.
But my aim here is not to tell you what I think the objective meaning of life is.
While surely we are interested in the answer, what is most noteworthy is that we even ask that question in the first place.
To summarise the works of professor Joseph Campbell, and set the tone for the writing that will follow,
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.”
Perhaps he’s right; perhaps there is no external, unchanging meaning to life. Maybe it’s up to us to bring meaning to it.
Fear of the Unknown
Crossing any threshold promises new questions — unasked, unanswered, and even unfathomed. New jobs, new marriages, new children; divorce, death. Unexpected ends and novel beginnings. All portend fresh hopes, dreams and fears.
When I graduated from university last summer, the unknown loomed larger than ever. What the future would bring I could not know, but that daunting unknown was the only thing of which I could be certain.
For recent graduates, the question of the meaning of life takes the form of ‘what am I going to do now’? Work? Travel? Graduate school? (Anything, surely, but return to our parents’ couch).
Then, it’s not so much a question of the meaning of life, but a question of how to discover our own meaning and carve a path for our future selves.
If the unknown were simply about a specific thing that we do not know, like hydrodynamics or living in Rome, it would be simple. We can learn, we can adapt.
But the fact is that what we are talking about is not as simple as that, since it’s not only a question of what the future will bring, but of whether we will be prepared to face it when we get there.
Will we fail to recognise something important? Will we make the right decisions? Questions such as these turn us back to ourselves, and our capability as travellers in the land of the not-yet-known.
Embracing the Unknown
The early-modern French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, is perhaps the most eloquent example of such a traveller. Writing during a period of great religious turmoil, Montaigne knew that the predominant views of his day were not going to be adequate for the times ahead. He chose to take a fresh look.
In so doing, he invented the ‘essay’, which comes from the French verb, essayer, meaning to try. His writings were trials, each an attempt to formulate a response to the perennial question of meaning— each answer giving way to the next thought further down the page.
And moreover, he had no preconception of what an answer should look like. He was not troubled by the idea that he might fail, and so he just proceeded.
Above all else, Montaigne knew how to entertain a question, and to let the sheer weight of its postulation loom there, as he reflected further. The unknown, for him, was something to be explored, rather than conquered.
In the modern world we are not as free as he was. We bring with us a set of expectations as to what success should look like, and so we bring equally the various illustrations of failure.
It is as if we pave over the ground of the unknown with the asphalt of expectations.
Failure as an Opportunity
Expectation is a problem because it gets in the way of perception. If we are to learn from any experience, we have to be able view objectively what has actually happened, just as Montaigne did when he proceeded onto the next page.
We certainly do not want to fail, risking disappointment and shame from others and ourselves. We certainly want to succeed. But the problem is that we often expect that success will look like this, while failure will look like that, and these preconceptions blind us from the reality at hand.
Perhaps failure, or success, will look different than what we had expected.
We can learn from Montaigne it’s okay if we don’t have all the answers. Perhaps a different opportunity shall arise as a result of our actions, one which we had not anticipated. This is not failure, but something new.
Unexpected outcomes should be looked upon less as failures and more as opportunities.
The answer, then, is not to ignore the “failure”, or to smile in the face of it, but to observe it with fresh eyes.
The meaning of life cannot be answered externally; it will never be uncovered in ancient scriptures or philosophical theories.
We have to work it out for ourselves; we have to learn how to live not just by the limits of what we consider ourselves to be, but in such a way that we can accept new opportunities as they arise.
“There are some defeats more triumphant than victories”, Montaigne said, referring to the possibility of discovery.
To accept this, we must embrace the unknown. We have to learn how to dwell in uncertainty, and not drown in the shadows that loom from insecurity.
“What is the meaning of life?’, you ask. Instead of asking others, perhaps we should instead create an answer for ourselves.