The Elusive Meaning of Life
The same influence that underlies our mental separation from the rest of creation and causes our despair is the one that pushes us to find meaning in the events which brought us here. At the most fundamental level, the promise of collective identities is to help us end our despair, and provide us with an implicit meaning to life.
At some point in the history of our species, consciousness, and separation was born. The same influence that underlies this mental separation is the one that pushes us to find a meaning in the events which brought us here. One byproduct of the evolution of our consciousness is our incessant need to know, to explain every phenomenon. The most obsessive search for an explanation is the need to endow our appearance on this planet with a special significance in order to reinforce our separateness, validate our specialness and provide us with an implicit meaning to life. This is the nuisance of possessing rational thought.
Rational thought has propelled us forward unlike any species before, but it has also provided us with a false sense of uniqueness, an arrogance of self-importance. Because we think rationally, we reject that we are a result of natural processes – a small step on the very large ladder of evolution – and we are consumed with the notion that we are special creatures with a divine purpose.
Is there a meaning in the seemingly random and chaotic sequence of events that has deposited us on this planet? Did everything happen for a reason, according to some grandiose plan that may or may not ever be revealed to us? Should we spend our short lives running around seeking proofs of our significance, perpetuating the belief that we are the subject of some mystical, divine purpose?
Or, should we acknowledge that there is no inherent meaning to life that we can discover? Should we admit that there is no implicit significance to our existence other than our being the latest development in a history of cosmic energy that spans eons of evolution? And, if so, should we waste precious time bemoaning the fragility of our lives?
Perhaps it would be better to avoid the argument altogether and allow ourselves not to know. Then we can stop wasting time trying to comfort ourselves with metaphysical speculation, and accept the fact that we are here – now. We are the dominant species — at the moment. We do possess rational thought, and the ability to alter our environment and direct our future.
Will we squander this opportunity and passively succumb to the evolutionary process, terminating ourselves as an unremarkable strain of microbe on planet Earth, leaving more advanced species to discover our fossils? Or will we take an active role in directing our own future, become a critical link in our own evolution, and ensure not only our survival on this planet now, but our advancement as a species in the future as well?
Perhaps we will never find the meaning of life, because one does not exist. Bemoaning our fate and wallowing in despair will only squander the precious opportunity that each of us possesses. Happiness and success are right here, right now. We will not find them by chasing after some elusive meaning of life, but by discovering our individual meaning, our unique contribution that uses our particular skills and abilities for the benefit of the greater whole.
The fortunate individual uses despair to change course. Each of us is a unique part of the whole, with distinct skills and abilities. By failing to fulfill our special role, and make our unique contribution for the betterment of the whole, we become aware of our lapse. This awareness is despair, the self’s longing to be itself, the need to recognize that each one of us is an inseparable part of the whole and possesses unique skills and abilities that are to be used to make a special contribution to that whole. And this need has as yet gone unmet; the contribution has not yet been made. Many of us will give up at this point, to the detriment of ourselves and our civilization.
Only those who persevere can find fulfillment and end their despair. But perseverance takes courage because bettering society through self-fulfillment is not a popularly accepted notion. Society is self-destructive in that it prepares us only for the marketplace where we can serve the capricious needs of the popular collective. Rarely is the focus on the individual except for defining how that individual can satisfy the immediate requirements of society. But society cannot function indefinitely as a collective identity, or groups of collective identities; it can only function as a collection of individuals. The only way that society can benefit long-term is by facilitating the development of the individual, by providing the tools and the environment for each individual to fully realize their innate potential.
Carl Gustav Jung called this process “individuation.” The pioneering motivational psychologist Abraham Maslow illustrated the individual’s development progression in phases that culminate in “self-actualization.” Viktor Frankl later extended this model with the final goal of “self-transcendence.”
It is individuals who despair when their unique skills and abilities are not fully developed. Only the individual can end this despair and contribute in the most effective way to the greater whole. By developing the unique skills and abilities of each individual and promoting behavior that leads to self-actualization, each person’s despair, and by extension, the collective despair of society, can be transcended and the human species can then direct it own evolution.
Rather than spend our precious time searching for an inherent meaning of life, our goal should be to use our unique, individual skills and abilities to make our lives meaningful.