The meaning of life, or the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life?”, pertains to the significance of living or existence in general. Many other related questions include: “Who are we?”, “Why are we here?”, “What is life all about?”, or “What is the purpose of existence?” There have been many proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. As the question seems to be most thought about, meditated, or inquired about, the search for life’s meaning has also produced much philosophical, scientific, theological, and metaphysical speculation throughout history. Different people and cultures believe different things for the answer to this question.
It seems evident that there are an infinite number of answers to the question about meanings to life. You can have several of them that serve you in different ways, or that are useful at different times.
However, in my own view, meaning of life is finding your purpose that is hidden beneath your huge ego. And to find the one, you have to struggle a lot. Remember that flowers, whales, elephants, horses, honeybees, dogs, butterflies, ants, Fir trees don’t angst about having a purpose or meaning. Their purpose is to be what they are. It is only humans who have to struggle to find the purpose or meaning. Even lovers of a dog, one of the pet animals who is often extolled for showing very smart and intelligent behaviour, have yet to hear their dog asking about the meaning of life and he seems pretty satisfied with mere existence.
Regardless, according to Welwyn Wilton Katz, “Life is a fairy tale, live it with wonder and amazement.”
William Shakespeare goes further and says:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
But the purpose of the actors (human beings) is not just producing entertainment for the audience. On the contrary, audience have to learn some lessons from the drama being played on the stage of the world. In the words of Brian L. Seaward (author of the book Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water: Reflections on Stress and Human Spirituality Revised and Expanded), Shakespeare is also telling us that even though we all are equal in our divinity despite the roles we play, yet unique in our humanity. Moreover, according to Seaward, some of the most difficult people we meet are some of the greatest actors to grace the earthly stage. They are also our greatest teachers.
To further understand the Shakespeare’s idea of stage and actors, we can refer to philosopher and poet Khalil Gibran who said:
“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.”
Similarly, most of the philosophers and prophets also agree that “true meaning of life is to be good, to do good, and serve your fellow humans to the best of your intentions, abilities and capacities.”
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that you will always be able to meet the expectations. We all are humans and will not always be successful in our attempts and will also have to see failures from time to time. Nevertheless failure is not a shameful thing (provided after learning the lesson we move on) and that is just a nature of being a flawed human being. But what is more important than failure is that we must continue our struggle to improve ourselves to reach an ideal state. And what is that ideal state?
The answer lies in the Plato’s theory of forms.
His theory of forms proposes that universals do not physically exist, like objects, but as heavenly forms. In the dialogue of the Republic, the character of Socrates describes the Form of the Good. His theory on justice in the soul relates to the idea of happiness relevant to the question of the meaning of life.
In Platonism, the meaning of life is in attaining the highest form of knowledge, which is the Idea (Form) of the Good, from which all good and just things derive utility and value. Plato’s allegory of cave best describes the idea or form of the good:
In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. Here is an illustration of Plato’s Cave:
When the prisoners are released, they can turn their heads and see the real objects. Then they realize their error. What can we do that is analogous to turning our heads and seeing the causes of the shadows? We can come to grasp the Forms with our minds.
However, it is also a fact that life is all about small things. We may take care of the small things and leave the rest to the care of God or, if we are atheists, to the care of government or any other body/force that they think is running the affairs.
Buddhism also supports the ideas of Plato. According to Buddhist School of Thought, “Humans are, basically, spiritual beings and mind is our essence. We are undergoing spiritual training to polish our mind (soul) and then return to the SPIRIT WORLD with higher state of mind and level of awareness. For this purpose we are given problems/troubles as part of our training so that, by facing and solving them, we could acquire various experiences and learn many different lessons. Hence, Problems, troubles, and hardships are part of everyone’s life/living in this world. When we endeavour to solve these problems, we give nourishment to our souls for growth.
Buddhist school further propounds that although the heavenly world, from which we reincarnate, is wonderful world overflowing with love, harmony and happiness, it doesn’t provide the soul with many opportunities to progress. It is when the soul is placed in the adverse circumstances that it can discipline itself, correct its misguided tendencies, and make progress. And once we become aware that “life is a workbook”, there is no longer any need to lament “why do I have to put through this?” Suffering is an opportunity to reflect on the mistakes and delusions of our own mind and to reform ourselves.
As has been pointed out above, the meaning of our life is the same for each of us, that is to experience hardships and trouble to polish our souls.But everyone of us has to discover this meaning or purpose (that is hidden under their huge egos) in a different way by playing their own unique role, as has been elucidated by Shakespeare.
Therefore, the next question that arises in the mind is, “how to discover our unique role or purpose?”
Although, it is very difficult task to discover one’s true identity or potential and we become exhausted in search of our meaning, it is important we must not lose our patience because “true patience is a wellspring of energy that drives our life, and aligns it with our ultimate purpose.”
Steve Pavlina, a development blogger on the internet, has come up with an interesting method: In his article “ How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes”, he suggests the following:
- Take out a blank sheet of paper and or open up a word processor where you can type.
- Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?”
- Write an answer (any answer) that pops into your head.
- It doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. A short phrase is fine.
- Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.
Your unique purpose/role is hidden within you and you just have to discover. And, then, a purposeless life leaves us hopeless. Power comes from engaging with our purpose and waking the passion within. However, it is also important not to let others tell you your purpose, but “listen to your heart”, your inner voice, otherwise you may have the risk of going astray.
And as pointed out by Mary Jaksch, founder of the “GoodlifeZen, there is a continuum with ‘in the moment’ at one end and goal setting at the other. And after going through her own search for the meaning of life, she summed up her purpose(s) in three lines:
I) To continually grow and develop as human being.
II) To cultivate kindness.
III) To help others reach their full potential.
The above goals also seem common purpose of our collective lives.
Now I tell you a short story to illustrate how much courage you need to go through the process of finding your purpose. The title of the story is” The River.” by Stevie P.
I was dead set on scouring the Earth, desperately searching… for what? I wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was that I was alone. I yearned for meaning, for connection, for something to wake me up out of my shallow pursuits. Though at that time, those yearnings felt like vague apparitions on the outer boundaries of my consciousness.
I had glimpsed, what I was looking for, yet it was fleeting; too fleeting to understand. The glimpses in some ways involved the river.
The river was mysterious and presumably perilous. I feared it, though, I didn’t want to admit it. It wasn’t the fear of river per se, but fear of surrendering to the mercy of its power.
When I felt particularly courageous, I would be ready to dip in the river. But every time I touched it, I quickly jumped back, fearing the current will carry me away.
The river was an intriguing enigma. I began to analyze it to understand it in its totality. My calculations were, mostly, based on the risks of the river and threats it posed. Risk rumination without trust equates to crushing doubts. One feels paralyzed. I wanted to explore. Driven by rugged stubbornness, I set out. After dragging myself through forests, up the mountains and over the vast fields, I realized that I was landlocked, surrounded by rivers on all sides.
On the bank of one river (they could’ve all been the same river for all I know); I decided to turn my focus inward. I asked myself questions like “What is my purpose here? Where am I trying to go? What do I want?
Honestly! I didn’t know.
Then delving deeper, I asked the question “who am I?”
This baffled me even more. I had never seriously entertained such a fundamental inquiry. Being next to a calm part of the river, I decided to take a look at my reflection in the water. What I saw astonished me. Was I a dolphin?
Here I was, a dolphin, dragging myself cross the land, literally killing myself for the fear of letting go and allowing the river to carry me. “Absolute madness,” I thought.
It was insane, too insane to even take seriously. I laughed at the utter ridiculousness of my self imposed suffering. With that epiphany, that simple shift of awareness, an enormous weight was lifted from me. Then, trading my hesitation for trust, I dove into the river.
It was nothing like the monster I made it out to be. Sure, the current was strong in some parts, but I was a dolphin.
I could’ve swum upstream if I wanted. But I decided to get out of my own way for the very first time in my life. I trusted, I flowed. Soon enough path of the river led to the ocean.
My world opened up, limitless. Other dolphins greeted me with love, ushering me into this new yet intensely familiar place.
“Home”, I thought to myself. “This feels like home.”
“Now the journey really begins…”
Furthermore, as Kant argued, human beings could just as plausibly be ends in themselves with the autonomy to define their own meaning for their lives. Even if there isn’t an answer to the question of life’s meaning, there is still the need to get through the day to day. Perhaps the question is not so much about the meaning of life, but about living it; answering the question “How should I live?” and finding something beyond yourself to help discover an answer.
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