A short while ago, New Scientist (Issue: 28 January 2017) had on its cover the headline, The Meaning of Life. On reading the article, titled Why am I here? (by Teal Burrell, pp. 30-33) it was really about the importance to health in finding purpose in one’s life. I believe this is so essential that I despair when I see hope and opportunity deliberately curtailed as we do with our treatment of refugees. It’s criminal – I really believe that – because it’s so fundamental to both psychological and physical health. As someone who often struggled to find purpose, this is a subject close to my heart.
As the article points out, for many people, religion provides a ‘higher purpose’, which is really a separate topic, but not an unrelated one. The author also references Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning (very early in the piece), which I’ve sometimes argued is the only book I’ve read that should be compulsory reading. The book is based on Frankl’s experience as a holocaust survivor, but ultimately led to a philosophy and a psychological method (for want of a better term) that he practiced as a psychologist.
I’ve also read another book of his, The Unconscious God, where he argues that there are 3 basic ways in which we find purpose or meaning in our lives. One, through a relationship; two through a project; and three through dealing with adversity. This last seems paradoxical, even oxymoronic, yet it is the premise of virtually every work of narrative fiction that all of us (who watch cinema or TV) imbibe with addictive enthusiasm. I’ve long argued that wisdom doesn’t come from achievements or education but dealing with adversity in our lives, which is impossible to avoid no matter who you are. It makes one think of Socrates' (attributed) famous aphorism: The unexamined life is not worth living. If we think about it, we only examine our lives when we fail. So a life without failure is not really much of a life. The corollary to this is that risk is essential to success and to gaining maturity in all things.
Humans are the most socially complex creatures on the planet – take language. I’ve recently read a book, Cosmo Sapiens; Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe, by John Hands. It’s as ambitious as its title suggests and it took him 10 years to complete: very erudite and comprehensive, Hands challenges science orthodoxies without being anti-science. But his book is not the topic of this post, so I won’t distract you further. One of his many salient points is that humans are unique, not the least because of our ability for self-reflection. He contends that we are not the only species with the ability to ‘know’, but we are the only species who ‘know that we know’ (his words) or think about thinking (my words). The point is that cognitively we are distinct from every other species on the planet because we can consider and cogitate on our origins, our mortality and our place in the overall scheme of things, in ways that other species can’t possibly think about.
And language is the key attribute, because, without it, we can’t even think in the way that we all take for granted; yet it's derived from our social environment (we all had to be taught). I understand that children isolated from adults can develop their own language, but, even under these extremely rare circumstances, it requires social interaction to develop. This is a lengthy introduction to the fact that all of us require social interaction (virtually from birth) to have a meaningful life in any way, shape or form. We spend a large part of our lives interacting with others and, to a very large extent, the quality of that interaction determines the quality of our lives.
And this is a convoluted way of reaching the first of Frankl’s ‘ways of finding meaning’: through a relationship. For most of us this implies a conjugal relationship with all that entails. For many of us, in our youth, there is a tendency to put all our eggs in that particular basket. But with age, our perspective changes with lust playing a lesser role, whilst more resilient traits like friendship, reliance and trust become more important, even necessary, in long term relationships, upon which we build something meaningful for ourselves and others. For many people, I think children provide a purpose, not that I’ve ever had any, but it’s something I’ve observed.
I know from personal experience, that having a project can provide purpose, and for many people, myself included, it can seem necessary. We live in a society (in the West, anyway) where our work often defines us and gives us an identity. I think this has historical roots. Men, in particular, were defined by what they do, often following a family tradition. This idea of a hereditary role (for life) is not as prevalent as it once was, but I suspect it snuffed out the light of aspiration for many. A couple of weeks ago I saw David Stratton; a Cinematic Life, followed by a Q&A with the man himself. David, who is about a decade older than me, came to Australia and made a career as a film critic, becoming one of the most respected, not only in Australia, but in the world. However, the cost was the bitter disappointment expressed by his father for not taking over the family grocery business back in England. Women, on the other hand, were not allowed the luxury of finding their own independent identity until relatively recently in Western societies. It’s the word ‘independent’ that was their particular stumbling block, because, even in my postwar childhood, women were not meant to be independent of a man.
The movie, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, which I reviewed back in 2010, does a fair job of addressing this issue in the guise of cinematic entertainment. To illustrate my point, I’ll quote from my own post:
The movie opens with a montage of people being sacked (fired) with a voice-over of Clooney explaining his job. This cuts to the core of the movie for me: what do we live for? For many people their job defines them – it is their identity, in their own eyes and the eyes of their society. So cutting off someone’s job is like cutting off their life – it’s humiliating at the very least, suicidally depressing at worst and life-changing at best.
So purpose is something most of us pursue, either through relationships within our family or through our work or both. But many of you will be asking: is there a higher purpose? I can’t answer that, but I’ll provide my own philosophical slant on it.
Socrates (again), who was forced to take his own life (as a consequence of a democratic process, it should be noted) supposedly said, in addition to the well-worn trope quoted above: Whether death is a door to another world or an endless sleep, we don’t know. And I would add: we are not meant to know. I’m agnostic about an afterlife, but, to be honest, I’m not expecting one, and I’ve provided my views elsewhere. But there is a point worth making, which is that people who believe that their next life is more important than the one they’re currently living often have a perverse, not to say destructive, view on mortality. One only has to look at suicide bombers who believe that their death is a ticket to Paradise.
Having said all that, it’s well known that people with religious beliefs can benefit psychologically in that they often live healthy and fulfilling lives (as the New Scientist article, referenced in the introduction, attests). Personally, I think that when one reaches the end of one’s life, they will judge it not by their achievements and successes but by the lives they have touched. Purpose can best be found when we help others, whether it be through work or family or sport or just normal everyday interactions with strangers.