“The two most important days in your life are
the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Although being alive gives a biological purpose, just surviving may not seem to be enough. We look for direction – something to work toward – and a sense that what we do may matter in some way.
Most people don’t ponder these questions every day. But they come up at times, particularly in times of transition; where, after a relationship ends, after losing a job or retiring, or as a young person struggles to find a place in the world, earlier sources of meaning no longer work and a new focus for a sense of purpose is needed.
Few experience the level of challenge Viktor Frankl faced in a Nazi death camp, where he saw it possible, for some, to find a sense of resolve in the face of clear reason for despair. But, as people encounter any level of hardship, they look for ways of understanding what is happening, and they look for reasons to put effort into things that seem pointless or cause pain.
This challenge has been examined by existential philosophers and artists. The Myth of Sisyphus gives a central image (condemned to forever struggle to push a boulder up a hill; only to watch it then roll down to the bottom and have to push it up again) and a nihilist view, of ultimate meaninglessness, must be confronted. (In time, the Sun will burn out and Earth will cease to exist, and people we love will be dead. So, nothing we do can have lasting value.)
But, when looking at a shorter frame of time, a number of things can be seen to matter.
Many people find meaning in helping others. (My life may not be important in the broad scope of history, but what I do matters to the people I love.)
Meaning can also be seen in the work one does, acting in moral ways, and efforts to social good.
Some see ourselves at a point in a long continuum of human history; where, as we build upon foundations that were created in the past, we can each contribute, in small ways, to work toward a better future for our children and their childrens’ children.
As Paul Tillich described in “The Courage to Be”, finding meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning is a challenge each person must to face. With no universal answer, part of the purpose/meaning of life is to find or accept or create a purpose for life.
Viktor Frankl – excerpts from “Man’s Search for Meaning”
Viktor Frankl – Youth in search of meaning (videotaped lecture, 4 minutes)
E.O. Wilson – “The Meaning of Human Existence”
Paul Tillich – excerpts from “The Courage to Be”