Last week, I promised to share with you my personal view of the meaning of life. As our discussions over the past several weeks have shown, answering this “ultimate question” is not an easy task. As I sat down at my computer to compose my answer, I was reminded of one of my favorite paintings, Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.”
“Christina’s World” depicts a woman, who was Wyeth’s disabled neighbor. This woman is laboriously crawling through a field. There is a house in the remote and unreachable distance, which I presume to be her home. Like Christina’s task, trying to answer ultimate questions often feels unmanageable, especially because my answers feel unfinished, no matter how hard I try to be comprehensive. Nonetheless, I promised to try, so here it goes.
You may recall that I suggested that the question itself has been interpreted in two distinct ways. The first, which is the individualistic point of view, approaches the question subjectively by rewording it to ask: what fulfills me the most? The second interpretation, which is the transcendent point of view, asks whether we can place our lives in a cosmic, universal or divine context.
Many thinkers, as well as entire philosophical traditions, have addressed the fulfillment question exclusively. These traditions believe the meaning of life can be achieved through a variety of avenues, such as self-actualization, self-realization, psychological health, individualism, autonomy, creativity and productivity. Addressing our question in this light, I concur that realizing your entire potentiality as a human being, which is the objective of all the above, is what makes life meaningful.
I subscribe to the view that meaning necessitates “self-actualization.” I would call to your attention three thinkers who have demonstrated insight on the various nuances of this point: Viktor Frankl, Albert Schweitzer, and Dr. Abraham Maslow.
Philosopher and psychologist Viktor Frankl, notes in his inspiring book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that modern man is empty inside, constantly searching for meaning and purpose. He recognizes that it is in our nature to constantly search for answers. As philosopher Maurice Riseling once said, “sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.”
Frankl is an extraordinary example of a person who converted a hopeless situation into something meaningful. He was a prisoner of war at a Nazi concentration camp and had little hope of survival. Through sheer determination, power of will, creativity, and unbounded optimism, he was able to not only survive his horrific situation but to find meaning in it as well.
His invention of “logo therapy” as a means of survival is indicative of his irrepressible creativity that makes him so compelling. He believes, and I concur, that it is our individual responsibility to find meaning in our lives.
Albert Schweitzer, while experiencing long and often heartbreaking days working with his patients at the Lambarene Hospital, created his unique Philosophy of the Reverence for Life.
Take the world exactly as it is, he instructs us. This, for him, is the only reasonable path.
Reminding me of the Buddhist approach to life’s suffering, he suggests we accept the horrible and the glorious, the meaningless and the meaningful, the sorrowful and the joyful. Although I disagree with his conclusion, I appreciate his beautiful prose and heartfelt embrace of life, just as it is. For him, the world remains a mystery, to be embraced, not solved.
For most of my life, I’ve felt the weight of my own mortality. I’ve tried wholeheartedly, although not always successfully, to approach each day as if it were my last. Similarly, I’ve long ago decided to forgo the negative and try, sometimes straining, to find the good in everyone and every situation. In short, mine is not the disposition of a warrior. This personal propensity drew me to my next great writer, Dr. Abraham Maslow. Doctor Maslow had the misfortune of experiencing a heart attack early in his life, but he survived. The experience radically changed him. He puts it this way: “Everything gets doubly precious, piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things—just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.”
The second interpretation of our question raises a very serious and difficult question: Do our lives possess transcendent meaning? Or, to quote a Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” Most of us have been raised in religious traditions which provide comforting answers to all of life’s mysteries. These traditions, and the answers they provide to ultimate questions, have become part of our heritage, our family, our upbringing and, ultimately, our emotional makeup. Whether the answers they provide are true, at minimum, these traditions provide comfort when faced with life’s inevitable suffering. The “everything happens for a reason” mantra is an example of a point of view designed to soften what would otherwise be an existentially disturbing event. As a result, people from a host of religious faiths face life’s difficulties, including death, bravely and confidently, because they are assured that there is a divine or cosmic purpose to their lives.
However, taking this question a little further, can we see our lives in a transcendental context without committing to the existence of a deity? Many of the earlier mystical traditions we examined proposed this very idea. According to these traditions, we see our lives as part of the infinite universe. But can science contribute to this discussion? Scientifically, I don’t believe we know enough about the world to answer that inquiry with any degree of confidence.
To support my contention, I’d point to the work of Rene Dubos. In his epic book, “The Torch of Life,” he reminds us that homo sapiens have existed for approximately one hundred thousand years. If we anticipate human beings existing for a million years, then it is clear we are merely in our intellectual and scientific infancy. It’ll be one hundred thousand years before we even reach puberty. Thus, not surprisingly, our vision of the universe is so primitive. Dubos asserts that we are scientifically preoccupied with seeing the world exclusively in terms of matter. Even more disturbing, we are prone to embrace mysticism whenever we are faced with things we don’t yet understand. As a species, our personal development displays all too often an infantile proclivity toward self-centered, prejudiced, overly possessive, destructive, hateful, divisive and irrational behavior.
Following Dubos’ line of reasoning, our species does not yet possess the scientific acumen to deliver a satisfactory answer to the riddle of the meaning of life, at least not from a transcendent perspective. Even more discouraging is the fact that his timetable suggests that it is unlikely that we will truly understand the universe, and our place in it, for hundreds of thousands of years.
So, if pressed, I would have to say that, absent a supernatural explanation, we are not presently equipped to comprehend any transcendent aspects to our existence. And until we do, mankind is destined to struggle, not unlike Christina in Wyeth’s famous painting, to search for the unobtainable.