Why do we live? Is there a reason for existence and a meaning to life? Can meaning even exist when all living will die and nothing lasts forever?
So asks the american psychotherapist Irvin Yalom in his 1980 classic “Existential Psychotherapy.”
Meaning and meaninglessness
The dilemma facing us with regards to the meaning of existence is that two propositions, both true, seem unalterably opposed.
On the one hand, the human being seems to require meaning. On the other hand, the existential concept of freedom posits that the only true absolute is that there are no absolutes. The world is contingent – that is, everything that is could as well have been otherwise; that human beings constitute themselves, their world, and their situation within that world; that there exists no “meaning,” no grand design in the univese, no guidelines for living other than those the individual creates. Irvin Yalom asks:
How does a being who needs meaning find meaning in a universe that has no meaning?
Man’s search for meaning can be dvided in two types of meaning; cosmic meaning and secular personal meaning.
Cosmic meaning implies some design existing outside of and superior to the person and invariably refers to some magical or spiritual ordering of the universe. One who possesses a sense of cosmic meaning generally experiences a corresponding sense of terrestrial meaning: that is, one’s terrestrial meaning consists of fulfilling or harmonizing with that cosmic meaning. For example, one might think of “life” as a symphony in which each life is assigned some instrumental part to play.
Cosmic meaning involves seeing the world and existence as part of a divine plan. From this perspective, God represents perfection, and thus the purpose of life is to strive for perfection. This striving can take many forms. Aristotle (and the whole rational intellectual tradition he launched) considered intellectual perfection as the ultimate form.
In the twelth century Moses Maimonides in The Guide of the Perplexed described the four major common modes of striving toward perfection. Irvin Yalom explains:
He dismissed the first, perfection of physical possession, as imaginary and impermanent; and the second, perfection of the body, as failing to differentiate human from animal. The third, moral perfection, he found praiseworthy but limited in that it served others rather than oneself. The fourth, rational perfection, he considered to be “true human perfection,” through which “man becomes man.” This perfection is the ultimate goal and permits the human being to apprehend God.
Or as Thomas Mann provocatively puts it:
With the generation of life from the inorganic, it was man who was ultimately intended. With him a great experiment is initiated, the failure of which would be the failure of creation itself … Whether that be so or not, it would be well for man to behave as if it were so.Thomas Mann (1875-1955)
Secular personal meaning
Absence of cosmic meaning means that modern secular humans face the task of finding some direction in life without an external beacon. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, used the word “absurd” to refer to the human being’s basic position in the world – the plight of a transcendent, meaning-seeking being who must live in a world that has no meaning. Camus stated that we are moral creatures who demand that the world supply a basis for moral judgment – that is, a meaning system in which is implicit a blueprint of values. But the world does not supply one: it is entirely indifferent to us. The tension between human aspiration and the world’s indifference is what Camus refered to as the “absurd” human condition.
A human being, Camus believed, can attain full stature only by living with dignity in the face of absurdity. The world’s indifference can be transcended by rebellion, a prideful rebellion against one’s condition.
There is nothing equal to the spectacle of human pride. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.Albert Camus (1913-1960)
For Camus there were several clear values and guidelines for conduct: courage, prideful rebellion, fraternital solidarity, love, and secular saintliness.
The secular activities that can provide human being with a sense of meaning can take various forms.
Altruism: The belief that it is good to give, to be useful to others, to make the world better for others, is a powerful source of meaning that requires no further explanation.
Dedication to a Cause: ”What man is, he has become through that cause he has made his own”, the German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) said. If something is to give meaning it must lift the individual out of himself, and make him a cooperating part of a vaster scheme.
Creativity: A creative life is meaningful. Note, however, that a creative path to meaning by no means is limited to the creative artist. As Irvin Yalom emphasizes, the act of scientific discovery is a creative act of the highest order. Even bureaucracy may be approached creatively. A research scientist who changed fields described the importance and the feasibility of being creative in an administrative position:
If you go into administration, you must believe that this is a creative activity in itself and that your purpose is something more than keeping your desk clean. You are a moderator and arbiter, and you try to deal equitably with a lot of different people but you’ve also got to have ideas, and you’ve got to persuade people that your ideas are important and to see them into reality … this is part of the excitement of it. In both research and administration, the excitement and the elation is in the creative power. It’s bringing things to pass. Now, I think administration is more exciting than research.”
The Hedonistic Solution: From this perspective the purpose of life is simply to live fully, to retain one’s sense of astonishment at the miracle of life, to plunge onself into the natural rhythm of life, to search for pleasure in the deepest possible sense. It is difficult to argue against this explanation for human behavior, that all living, feeling and thinking human beings recognize.
Self-Actualization: Another source of personal meaning is the belief that human beings should strive to actualize themselves, that they should dedicate themselves to realizing their inbuilt potential.
Whereas hedonism and self-actualization are concerned with the self, altruism, dedication to a cause and creativity reflect some basic craving to transcend one’s self-interest and to strive toward something or someone outside or “above” onself. Martin Buber (1878-1965) notes that though human beings should begin with themselves (by searching their own hearts, integrating themselves, and finding their particular meaning), they should not end with themselves: One begins with oneself in order to forget oneself and to immerse oneself into the world; one comprehends oneself in order not to be preoccupied with oneself.
Or in Abrahm Maslow‘s (1908-1970) view;
The fully actualized person (a small percentage of the population) is not preoccupied with “self-expression.” Such a person has a firm sense of self and “cares” for others rather than uses others as a means of self-expression or to fill a personal void. Self-actualized individuals, according to Maslow, dedicate themselves to self-transcendent goals. They may work on large-scale global issues – such as poverty, bigotry, or ecology or, on a smaller scale, on the growth of others with whom they live.
The life activities that provide meaning are by no means mutually exclusive; most individuals derive meaning from several of them. Furthermore, there is a gradual evolution of meanings throughout an individual’s life cycle. Whereas in adolesence and early and middle adulthood one’s concerns are centered on self as one struggles to establish a stable identity, to develop intimate relationships, and to achieve a sense of mastery in professional endeavors, in one’s forties and fifties one passes (unless one fails to negotiate an earlier developmental task) into a stage where one finds meaning in self-transcendent ventures.
Modern man’s dilemma, however, according to psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), is that one is not told by instinct what one must do, or any longer by tradition what one should do. Nor does one know what one wants to do.
Some common behavioral reactions to this crisis of values are;
Conformity, where we do as others do;
Submission to totalitarianism, where we do as others wish;
Crusadism, where one seek out and dedicate oneself to one dramatic and important cause after another ;
Nihilism, where we discredit everything others purport to have meaning;
A vegetative form of existential sickness where one sinks into a state of aimlessness and apathy; or
Compulsive activity, ie. a pattern of frenetic activity that so consumes the individual’s energy that the issue of meaning is drained of its toxin.
In the same way we face and organize random stimuli and events in our daily world, so too we approach our existential situation. We experience dysphoria in the face of an indifferent, unpatterned world and search for patterns, explanations, and the meaning of existence. As Irvin Yalom states it:
When one is unable to find a coherent pattern, one feels not only annoyed and dissatisfied but also helpless. The belief that one has deciphered meaning always brings with it a sense of mastery. Even if the meaning-schema that one has discovered involves the idea that one is puny, helpless, or dispensable, it is nonetheless more comforting that a state of ignorance.
One outcome of meaning is that it is an anxiety emollient: it comes into being to relieve the anxiety that comes from facing a life and a world without an ordained, comforting structure. But there is also another vital reason why we need meaning. Once a sense of meaning is developed, it gives birth to values – which, in turn, act synergistically to augment one’s sense of meaning.
Ernest Becker argues persuasively that our “universal ambition” is “prosperity” (that is, “continued experience”) and that death is the chief enemy with which we must contend:
Man transcends death not only by continuing to feed his appetites, but especially by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits… It is an expression of the will to live, the burning desire of the creature to count, to make a difference on the planet because he has lived, has emerged on it, and has worked, suffered, and died.Ernest Becker (1924-1974)
According to Irvin Yalom the belief that life is incomplete without a goal fulfillment is not so much a tragic existential fact of life as it is a Western myth, a cultural artifact. The Eastern world never assumes that there is a “point” to life, or that it is a problem to be solved; instead life is a mystery to be lived. In the words of the Indian sage Bhaqway Shree Rajneesh:
Existence has no goal. It is pure journey. The journey in life is so beautiful, who bothers for the destination?Bhaqway Shree Rajneesh (Osho, 1931-1990)
Life just happens to be, and we just happen to be thrown into it. Life requires no reason.
With those last words of advise from Irvin Yalom we conclude this introduction to meaninglessness as an ultimate concern. If this post has warmed your appetite for the existential tradition you can find more blog posts on death, personal freedom and existential isolation here.
I also warmly encourage you to head directly to Irvin Yalom whose book “Existential Psychotherapy” from 1980 this blog post is based on. Irvin Yalom is a goldmine of inspiration and my biggest hope with this blog post is really for the reader to go straight to him. There is no substitute for his works.
As always, also note that I am available for colourful shows and presentations on the existential tradition specifically targeted private and public offices, educational institutions and churches.
To receive notifications on future blog posts sign up for the Newsletter.