What's it all about, Alfie?

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 that 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 ~ doe 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 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.
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 one's 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 immigrants) then, if it’s ultimately self-determined, can one arbitrary meaning 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.
Psychotherapist 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 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.

Comments

  1. If we answer 'yes' to the question of whether life has a meaning then aren't we saying that our very lives are signifiers. I'm not sure I like that. Have our lives got purpose? Yes. I guess meaning and purpose are pretty much synonyms in this context but I think it's awfully easy to get caught up in the signifier aspect of 'meaning' when we're thinking about our lives. One can live a purposeful life without it having some great 'meaning'.

    Also meaning as something we put onto others lives from our perspectives as the inventors of the story of their lives - see war heroes as the most obvious example of story being imposed from the culture onto the individual. Ho hum. Thinky stuff.

    How that fits into Wyrd is something I also need to give further thought.

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