Does life have meaning? Perhaps that doesn’t depend on life, but on you

Maarten van Doorn
Feb 28, 2018 · 7 min read

I envy those people who seem to possess this unshakable ability to live life without having the occasional existential crisis.

If one good testimony to one’s existence having a point is that the question of its point does not arise — what is that they’ve figured out about the meaning of life that I have yet to learn?

Whatever the proposed answer to this question, I’m afraid it’s just not going to do it for me.

Consider, for instance, this 1776 statement by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (in a letter to Padre Martini):

“We live in this world to compel ourselves industriously to enlighten one another by means of reasoning and to apply ourselves always to carrying forward the sciences and the arts.”

Mozart was convinced his life had a reason.

It is this specificity and certainty of purpose that make me jealous.

Why do I find myself — or, it seems, my generation of ‘millennials’, for that matter — utterly unable to accept such ‘we-humans-live-in-this-world-to-do-X’ arguments?

God is dead

According to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — who is now dead — “God is dead”.

What he meant was that, in our culture, God is no longer the pinnacle around which our lives are organized: we do no longer think there exists a God whose purpose ordains certain specific duties for all men.

As a consequence, there is no longer some thing or being around to make claims like Mozart’s true. Those grand statements about the reason — not just the cause — why we live appear to be utterly unfounded if there exists no God.

On ways of thinking like Mozart’s, there are sensible reasons why our presence in this universe has spiritual significance. Having enjoyed an areligious upbringing, I have never found myself able to believe that. How can anything be so consequential that it warrants human existence?

It is the ability to wholeheartedly embrace such statements that makes me jealous of religious people. I would love to truly experience that feeling that inspires to a life in the service of something ‘higher’.

Alas, the intellectual part of my brain tends to concur with the modern scientific worldview and its disenchanting implication that the cosmos is inherently devoid of meaning.

A naturalistic view of the universe and our place in it has, as German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) put it, “sobered” the world: the magic has gone from it.

I need that magic back.

Absurdity

The problem is that without something God-like, ideas about why we should do what we should do seem so arbitrary.

If we think we must do A rather than B merely because it seems to us like a good idea to do so and not because A is prescribed by a divine power whose existence and commanding authority we genuinely believe in, the judgment that we must do A no longer makes any sense.

We won freedom, but lost something else.

After the Nietzschean death of God, philosophers writing under the banner of existentialism — most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard — contended that, in the absence of such a higher power, life was “absurd”. If there do not exist any real standards for how to live, everything we say on this matter is pure invention, or, if you will, pretension.

On this way of thinking, for life to have any meaning, there need to be criteria by which to live that are not of human making — principles of which we are not the source and that somehow have authority over us.

The obsession-era

Modern life has come up with its own answer to that puzzle: obsessions. Nowadays, obsessions give us duties and reasons to live.

Make no mistake — we do live in the obsession-era. Success without obsession is deemed a near impossibility, Instagram is full of #Obsessed people and even our hobbies are more akin to obsessions than to leisurely activities.

When obsessed, you care for something to the point that your thoughts control you, instead of the other way around.

Merriam-Webster defines an obsession as a “persistent disturbing preoccupation with an idea or feeling.” In psychiatry, obsessions are “upsetting and unwanted thoughts, images, and impulses that constantly recur.”

An obsessed person is aware of her inability to control certain thoughts. They happen to her and they feel like they do not originate in her. An obsession possesses us.

If you have an obsession, the purpose of your existence seems more certain than ever and, what’s more, that’s not because you have decided that you should do A and not B — rather, something commands you: you must do A.

It is this lack of control that make obsessions the new God.

Magic

In principle, you can be obsessed with anything — whether it’s writing, painting, the survival of human race or six-pack abs.

Obsessions can enhance any endeavor with this magical sense of purpose, providing the obsessed with a sense of direction and at the same time silencing skepticism about the real value of her strivings.

I can’t help but thinking that this is not a sustainable solution. If obsessions are the cause of feelings of purpose, it would seem that we give point to our lives as if by blindfolding ourselves and attaching to something — anything.

However, it’s a plain mistake to think the futility of your existence is alleviated by a deep care for meaningless things like six-pack abs. The meaning of life is not a matter of blindfolding.

Detecting meaning?

When I have trouble seeing the point of it all, it’s not just that I struggle creating value. Rather, the problem is that I have trouble perceiving value.

On those moments, I have difficulties with seeing anything as important enough to care about in the first place. Convincing myself that life was meant for this or that purpose feels like a hopeless attempt at fooling myself.

Like pretending, the existentialists would say.

However, maybe I’m setting the bar too high.

We should ask whether we can do any better than making ourselves ‘see’ the point of it all.

I’m not sure we can.

Some help

What I am sure about is that an obsession is a state of being that you enter because you’re pursuing something worthwhile, not a state of being that makes the object of your strivings valuable.

What I am not sure about is whether life can have meaning without a little pretension.

Now that the usefulness of our existence is no longer ensured by fulfilling our role in a divine scheme, there is nothing out there grand enough to bestow meaning on our lives forever and for everyone.

Meaningfulness, then, needs some help from our side. We are not going to stumble upon guidelines for a meaningful life, but have to make ourselves believe that we matter without engaging in too much fakery.

After all, what makes us human is that we can give life meaning.

We need to be passionate for something in order to have a sense of purpose, but not just for anything. Having an obsession is not enough. A blindfolded choice is not going to drive out feelings of meaninglessness. That would be too much pretending.

Rather, a sense of meaning requires latching on to something of which we can truly believe that it makes our life more meaningful — it requires striving for something about which we’d be willing to assert that it was our purpose with the same sense of certainty as with Mozart embraced his reason to live.

Fake?

In a very strict sense, nothing really matters.

But that is not what really matters.

There is no single, universally true answer to the question of the meaning of life. There is only the correct answer for you.

Moreover, as you change, your purpose may change. Life only has a point for you as you are now. That doesn’t mean that your previous answers were all mistaken, it means that you have changed and that you require a new way of living in order to feel like your life matters.

As philosopher Thomas Huxley (1825–1895) said:

“The purpose of life is the purpose we put into it. Its meaning is whatever we may choose to call the meaning. Life is not a crossword puzzle, with an answer settled in advance and a prize for the ingenious person who noses it out. The riddle of the universe has as many answers [and] the best answers are those which permit the answerer to live most fully, the worst are those which condemn him to partial or complete death.”

Refutations of existential doubts are effective only individually and only temporarily. We are not going to fathom an eternal answer revealing our cosmic significance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have meaningful days.

When these soul-quenching questions re-enter our consciousness, it is time to dig deep into ourselves and our lives, update our self-knowledge and our picture of reality and devise our next solution to the problem of human existence.

Pretending? It’s simply the best we can do.


There’s more to that

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To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this essay which was my Medium first, I wrote an upgraded version:

The Understanding Project

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Thanks to Charles Chu

Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.