“Meaning is malleable: take it out, you get nihilism and despair. Put it in, you get sacredness and something most special.”– Dean Ornish
In Greek myth, Sisyphus offended the gods and was punished by being forced to keep rolling a boulder to the top of a hill even though it would immediately roll back down, forcing him to start again. This unsatisfiable and meaningless effort has been seen (by existentialist philosopher Albert Camus) as a metaphor for the absurdity of human striving. Ironically, it is the sense of “no-meaning”, of alienation, of passive indifference, that sets us rushing headlong to find or make meaning.
How would Sisyphus story be changed if each boulder was a new boulder and it being carried to the top for a temple? Or, what if Sisyphus was wired by the gods to LOVE rolling boulders, it was the only way he would be happy? There is no longer alienation, there is purpose.
Is Simply Living Meaning Enough? Inherent Meaning
“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.”- Fromm
One view is that there is inherent meaning in the experience of living: life is an intrinsic good, the meaning is in each moment. Simply put: Being alive in and of itself is the meaning. The meaning of your life is in the experience of it. The experience is the meaning. There is no other meaning. If you are working toward something, whatever the great meaning you are ascribing to it, the meaning of the life you are building toward does not exist. It is a cycle that never ends. The idea that you are waiting for it to start, for it to take shape is beside the point. Camus put it succintly: you will never really live if you continue to search for the meaning of life.
“Meaning & reality were not hidden behind things, they were in them, in all of them.”- Hermann Hesse
Is it Just What You Personally Believe? Subjective Meaning
What if there isn’t one big cosmic meaning, but only the one we bring to it? You the meaning to your own life day-to-day and hour-to-hour- it’s not a general thing, but specific to the moment. Each person is responsible for finding the meaning of his own existence. Anais Nin says there is an individual novel for each person.
The subjective perspective says that meaning lies not in things- but in our attitude toward them. There is no meaning but that which is given. The way you personally make meaning of something is unrelated to the state of affairs around you. You have the ability to take any experience and create a meaning that can range from disempowering to life saving, the same thing can be framed in a thousand ways.
Are There General Measures of a Meaningful Life?
In consulting with the poets, the sages and those on their deathbeds, the general consensus is that meaningful lives fall into two categories: Love and Service, or Intention and Creation.
Whether Thomas Merton (“Love is our true destiny.”) or Marc Chagall (“The color of love is the only color that matters.”), it seems to be that how we connect, love and serve others is a core element to meaning. The measure of a life well lived is in service, planting trees under which we will never sit, contributing.
Positive creation is the other measure of meaning. Living with applied will or awareness. Set goals, charge after them (mission). Fully engaged in work we enjoy. Moving ahead/achieving . Doing what is significant to you, your will, your “wiring” your purpose. These all carry with them a quality of full participation in the endeavor of making meaning in each moment. While, in an empty life, passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose, but in the end is bitter and lonely, the consensus is, for a meaningful life, we need to have a positive creative intent.
Where do you make or take your meaning?
Here are the questions we did in small group discussion – repurpose as needed.
- Where do you derive your meaning? Are you certain it is yours and not borrowed from the culture?
- Do you believe you have a unique purpose to fulfill? If so, have you found it? What is it? Are you able to state it concisely, like this: “My name is _____and I am here to ______which I am activating by_____.”
- What can you offer to others who are searching? What is your wisdom? What have you learned so far on this topic?
- How aligned are your daily activities to your meaning?
- How can your friends and family help you fulfill and align your life to make it most meaningful to you?