There is a question that lies behind every man and woman’s daily thoughts and activities. One of the great equalizers of human kind is that we all, regardless of race, creed, color, or nation, wonder what our lives mean. The inherent desire to question our world and all that exists within it is the most significant difference between humans and animals. Reflecting on our evolution from tribal hunters and gatherers to high tech creatures of leisure, we cannot escape the most basic of questions. What is life?
The search for life’s meaning is not new. Ancient Greek philosophers spent their lifetimes contemplating this very question. During the 5th century BC, noted philosopher Socrates declared “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This simple quote is not just influential to a philosophical mind, it suggests something deeper and more complex. It is a mandate that compels humanity to examine life’s essence. Socrates influences us by linking meaning to life and placing a heavy weight to his words. He does not just suggest that there might be meaning to live, he insists that it must be contemplated, examined. To not do so reduces our species to something less. The teachings of Socrates influences the way we think to this day.
Prior to Socrates, the teachings of Confucius in China were held in high regard. Confucius is credited with having said “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first by reflection, which is noblest; second by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” In this wisdom, he held that reflection is the purest way to obtain wisdom. Once more, philosophical teaching that implores us to think about our very existence. This is, in fact, a very common piece of advice among those philosophers of all ancient cultures. It is such a fundamental concept that it would be examined by more modern philosophers and spiritualists throughout history.
While their advice to contemplate our lives seems simple, their true intent and meaning is easily lost in the modern world. What is this idea of a meaningful life? Philosophers both ancient and modern promote an examined life, but who determines the definition of a meaningful life? What is the ultimate goal of self contemplation? We see that the question very rapidly becomes a rabbit hole through which we must travel without benefit of chart, map or guide. The quest for life’s meaning is open ended and vague. In point of fact, it creates even more questions. Am I living a meaningful life? To whom am I beholden in answering this question?
At its most basic this complex question is, in essence, an attempt to validate our own existence. Seemingly this question seeks approval. In modern western culture, much value is placed on a person’s ability to gain wealth, respect, power and prestige. There is a great respect and regard for positions in politics, religion, medicine and education. While greed may be a part of this validation, it is not always so. Much value is also placed on social or personal achievement. In many circles, life’s meaning is found in one’s profession or career. Some view the value of creating and providing for a family as meaningful. How do we decide what part of life dictates its meaning. Is the material aspect of life more important than the social and spiritual? Or vice versa.
There is another possibility. It is possible that we may not really understand what Socrates meant by examining life. The idea seems straight forward and material. However, if we view this question in a broader sense, we may be able to find a simpler answer. Perhaps we tend to over think the purpose of our existence. It is possible that Socrates, Confucius and others were not quite understood. It’s important to consider that the meaning of life is of a singular nature. That is to say that it is only a dilemma for the self. Each individual person must decide what value their life holds. As with art, life’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder.
A Material Life
The most basic of life motivators is survival. The urge to survive drives us in most of our endeavors. The most basic of needs are sought out. Food, water and shelter. Life’s necessities are important of course, but they do not provide much meaning to life. As our species became more sophisticated, we were able to manipulate nature’s resources to suit our needs. For many people in modernized countries survival is not an issue. That fact leads to a more recreational life style. Non-essential possessions are desired and a sense of importance is placed on what and how many possessions we have. To obtain those possessions we must find occupations that can provide the means to achieve wealth. Thus, prestige, power and social rank begin to manifest themselves as our defining points. On the surface a materialistic life may seem shallow and short sighted, however, there are valuable aspects of this life that can define us in a positive way. A social or economic position might be reached due to our hard work ethic, our desire to finish tasks or a genuine desire to do our best at every task. But while important, these traits don’t provide a meaning of life.
A Spiritual Life
Religion has traditionally been a major force in humanity’s search for meaning. It has provided a very important aspect to this question. It establishes a theory that there is an existence beyond the material world. Throughout history many people have been drawn to the belief of a hereafter due in no small part to the fear of death and a presumed finality. The belief in an afterlife is reassuring, however, it also takes the burden off of the individual in defining his or her existence. Without that burden, focus is shifted from examining the nature of life to speculating the nature of gods and heavens. Spirituality is vastly important in defining one’s existence but it is also just a starting point. It would be too simplistic to say ‘I exist because I was made by a higher power’. Even if that is true, there is so much more to examine.
For all the wisdom of ancient and modern thinkers, our truths exclusively lie within ourselves. Ultimately we determine our own morals, ethics, spirituality and indeed the meaning of our lives. To discover that meaning we must follow the wisdom of our philosophers, both spiritual and non. It is our own responsibility to find that answer. Education and meditation are powerful tools in the journey to self introspection. We can enlighten ourselves through reading and contemplating our lives each day. However, even these two tools can run counter to the very question we are asking.
The Secret Meaning of Life
We look around our world and wonder why. Life on this planet can be taken for granted when a species like ours achieves an advanced existence in which we have no want for food, water or shelter. Fight or flight mechanisms are no longer of use and they become dusty and unused. Life in our modern world seems easy, yet in reality it is very fragile and very special. To examine life is to become more humble and amazed at how grand and complex life really is.
The meaning of life is a well kept secret in a glass jar. It stares back at us in the mirror. It surrounds us on our way to work. It sits quietly in the palm of our hand. When we pass each other on the street, life’s meaning looks into our eyes. We touch it, feel it, smell it and sense it every day but we do not realize what it is. We talk about life, and we meditate about it’s meaning. We read books to find the answer. We ask those in high regard ‘what is the meaning of life?’. The secret is that there is no secret.
Whether we’ve been granted a gift from above or won an evolutionary game of chance, we are in possession of a very special and wondrous thing. We are alive. Life itself is where we find meaning. Decades of meditation, while spiritually rewarding, is not living. Spending years with our noses in books, searching, is educationally gratifying but not living. The meaning of life is to be found in our every day human experiences. If we spend our lifetimes wringing our hands, wondering, theorizing and seeking life’s meaning, we miss the point entirely.
The meaning of life is self defined. We must live our lives to their fullest extent with the utmost passion and reverence. We create the parameters of our lives each day by establishing our own moralities, ethics and spiritualities. Life’s purpose, our purpose, is defined by the way we treat ourselves and each other. By the way we connect with the rest of the life that surrounds us. When we achieve that connection, we discover the meaning of life in a most amazing way. There is a sensation of peace when we see what is already before us. The meaning of life is simply to live.