Get my Meaning?

The meaning of life is a topic that has taxed the greatest (and the least able) minds since the dawn of human existence. It was brought to mind again recently in a discussion with a friend who suggested that having a meaning to one’s life was vital to good mental health. Numerous psychologists, philosophers and scholars agree both a sense of purpose, and the degree of spiritual reflection that precedes finding a purpose, are highly beneficial. It is better to have a sense of why you are here than to merely trudge from day to day in a largely pointless routine. In fact, many have argued that just having a purpose in itself is actually far more important than the exact nature of the purpose.
One of the key questions in the matter of meaning is the source of that meaning and what is actually more than a linguistic nicety ~ do we discover the meaning of our lives, or create it? That is to say, is the meaning already determined (whether by a god, Wyrd, karma or anything  else) and therefore waiting for us to find it, or is it something purely of our own invention and therefore our life has no meaning until the moment we decide to invest it with one. The approach one favours will partly determine the methods one uses to go about finding it.
If a person believes the meaning is predetermined then, to a large extent, it is already playing out whether a person knows what it is or not. Carl Jung coined the term synchronicity to describe the strange way unrelated events have of resonating with each other, such that a person can get the feeling that a thing is meant to be. Heathens, and others who subscribe to the notion of Wyrd, often suggest that when a person is going with the flow of Wyrd opportunities fall before them, omens and events reinforce the path they are following (and when they go against Wyrd, the opposite happens to effectively encourage them to change direction). Many ancient and modern pagans have felt that the meaning of life is part of a much larger and intricate pattern that draws many people together, even if only for brief periods.
One of Berne's more interesting ideas was that of life-scripts, archetypal stories that we play out over and over again whether we have any conscious knowledge of our story or not. Berne, unsurprisingly for a therapist, focussed mostly on destructive scripts wherein people repeat the same mistakes ad nauseum. Such caustic patterns are not the meaning of life, more a derailment of it, but arguably the meaning might be a positive, uplifting story. Though maybe that's just because I am a storyteller ~ biologists automatically think in terms of bodily causes, economists i terms of monetary issues, and tale-spinners always think everything out to have a plot!
If there is a given meaning to life, then failure to achieve it may well lead to unhappiness in the very least. Kierkegaard and Camus argued that life is basically meaningless, but that people are best advised to fight against the emptiness and impose a meaning upon their lives. From this approach life can mean pretty much anything a person wants it to mean (leastways, they can choose a purpose and try to live up to it). This grants considerable freedom, but is not without its own difficulties.
If there is no particular meaning to life (beyond, perhaps, the Darwinian ordinance that one should replicate ones genes… which leads to the conclusion that numerous chavs have fulfilled their biological mandate a dozen times over despite their total lack of admirable qualities), then not having a standard to live up to is much less of an issue. Most people who advocate a ‘Given Meaning’ usually have the assumption that the force deciding on what the meaning of a person’s life is will be benevolent. That meaning, once found, will be an inspiration, uplifting, and pro-social one. Most people would feel a bit disappointed to discover that the meaning of their life was to get their tax returns in on time.
If the Meaning is entirely a self-determined one, then does it need to live up to some external standard of morality or worthiness? One person may decide the meaning of their life is to heal the sick, which is admirable, but if their neighbour decides that the purpose of his life is to eat lots of cream cakes (or, more disturbingly, to slaughter prostitutes) then, if it’s ultimately self-determined, can one arbitrary be argued as having less value than another?
The question could further be raised as to whether the meaning of life needs must be generic (be kind to others) or if it can be quite specific (move to Clacton and open a shoe shop). A specific aim might be achieved comparatively early in a person’s life, which would then seem to leave them at something of a loose end ~ unless an individual may have multiple meanings in life.
Victor Frankl made the intriguing argument that life becomes meaningful not by sitting around gazing up one’s own fundament in contemplation but by getting out and living life to the full ~ engage with the world and life will become meaningful. Integral to this is an important point, that most people only start contemplating what their life might mean when they reach a point where they feel their life has become meaningless, empty, and directionless. The search for meaning then becomes partly a search for happiness, a sense of value, and perhaps a sense of rightness ~ that whatever we are doing with ourselves is good and of lasting worth.
Few people argue that the meaning of life is to get permanently pissed, shag everything that moves, and mainline heroin. All those things are rather self-involved and transitory, whereas most philosophical notions of life’s purpose suggest being of service to others and engaging in actions whose influence will outlast our flesh ~ and so grant even the most hardened atheist some illusion of immortality.
The Bhutanese philosopher Karma Ura has suggested that true meaning and happiness comes in no small part from having warm, loving interactions with other people (or living things, if the motif is extended to non-human animals). We should not think of the purpose of our lives as being somehow isolated from other people and their purposes.
Different pagan traditions might advocate their own approaches, though all the ancient cultures that left written records encouraged love (or at least duty) towards other people and creatures as being central to a good life. Whether the Gods set a meaning for our lives, or we have to create one of our own, it is evident that having a greater sense of purpose than merely scattering ones genetic seed or following a mindless routine of work-consume-sleep is important to a rewarding life and a willingness to overcome whatever hurdles and tribulations are thrown in our paths.


  1. My experience of this is that my search for meaning and purpose has led to them finding me. And not being what I expected. In the same sense that 'music always finds the dancer' as a fellow poet (Tom Metcalfe) quoted last night.

    I think there's an interplay between our search for and creation of meaning and purpose and what we discover in nature and / or are gifted with by the gods. Rather than fate being predetermined it is redetermined with each choice made by all peoples of the natural world and spirits / gods alike.

    And that's my bit of philosophy for today...

  2. Seems to me that there are those who wake, and do - and those who remain asleep, and dream that they do. Both kinds perceive the state they are in, as real. My impression is that most folk I encounter are sleepwalking. One can interact with them to a very limited extent, but when the culture hands out so many hypnotropic drugs, the case often seems hopeless. But then, it is a joy to meet another who is awake and lucid among all those (regrettably very noisy) sleepers.

  3. Does it matter whether the meaning in our lives is discovered or created? Both require us to put in some effort (either to discover that mean, or create it) and, in my view, that is the bit that most people miss out. As Anastasia Kirov-Renshaw
    suggests the difference is whether people are awake, or are sleep-walking. If a person is sleep-walking, then they have no purpose in their life.

    I'm not sure that Berne's archetypal stories has much to do with the meaning of life. Other than, we can (and often do) go on repeating the same stories in our lives until we wake up, and become aware of what we're doing.

    With regard to the benevolence, or not, of the meaning of an individual life, I do think we get back what we put out. On a very simple scale (which, actually, you can try out) if we are rude and impolite to people then those people will tend to be rude and unhelpful towards us. But if we're polite and gentle towards others, then they will generally be polite and helpful towards us. If you don't want to upset your friends then just try a simple thought experiment - are you going to help the person who yells and swears at you, or the one who says, "Please will you give me a hand?"? So, while killing prostitutes can certainly be a valid (if illegal) meaning for an individuals life, what sort of person will they become? If Karma Ura is correct, and we gain meaning by "having warm, loving interactions with other people" is that going to happen if we upset people around us? So I suspect the benevolence comes from the simple fact that being nice to people means they tend to be nice to us and that just feels good.

  4. Ultimately, as long as a person has a constructive meaning, I don't think it matters ~ though clearly a person's belief about the nature of meaning will determine where they start from and which direction they head in to find/create it.
    I wonder if some of the more New Age philosophical movements, with their emphasis on self-definition and scorn for "reliance" on other people, discourage the very warm relationships and the risk of vulnerability that (and I agree with Karma Ura here) give meaning to life.


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