Friday, January 25, 2008

On meaning and meaninglessness

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend, and the not so uncommon proposition: "Life is meaningless" came up. It's been bouncing around in my head ever since.

Let me disclaim up front: whenever I hear someone state that life, or the universe, or whatever is "meaningless," my immediate, gut reaction is a negative one.

But, being that different persons may understand words differently, I thought I should step back and reflect a bit on what it might mean to someone to say "Life is meaningless."

First, of course, is the context: What my friend said, more fully, was (I'm paraphrasing from memory, so hopefully I've got it right!):


"Life/the universe is empty; life is meaningless; therefore we have to create the meaning in our lives."

In this context, I can see that the claim that "life is meaningless" is actually meant as a positive statement, not a negative one -- or so it could be read. Following from that, it makes sense that, in an inherently meaningless world, humans are free to supply the meaning that they so plainly crave. Let's take apart this statement a bit more.

From my perspective, there are two assertions in the phrase above. To say that everything (the "universe" or "life") is empty resonates with me in a certain way; it calls to mind the very important buddhist concept of sunyata - 'emptiness.' But stating the emptiness of existence in buddhist terms is not an expression of nihilism, or an expression that everything is 'meaningless,' although it is frequently misinterpreted as such.

Sunyata rather asserts that there are no permanent, absolute characteristics of things. It is like saying that everything is impermanent, subject to change, lacking in independent self-existence. It is an assertion that everything in the universe hangs together and co-depends with everything else -- that forms emerge and then disappear like water bubbles, or waves in the ocean.

What about meaninglessness?

My friend said 'life is meaningless, therefore we must create the meaning in our lives.' Okay. I'm all for creating. But now that I've created, or you've created meaning, life isn't meaningless anymore, is it? In fact, humans have been creating meaning for thousands of years.

So isn't it a contradiction in terms to say that life -- human life -- is meaningless, after all these years?

Nonetheless, perhaps it can be a comfort to envision a world without meaning, fresh and clean, awaiting your newly created storyline to populate it. Perhaps the meaning of past generations is stale, or downright pernicious, and needs to be jettisoned.

And I can well imagine how meaningless -- and cruel -- the universe seems when one has suffered a great loss -- the death of a child, a parent, a loved one, for example. We rail against the universe in these circumstances: how could a meaningful world permit such an injustice?

This is the problem that has dogged theistic religions for millennia: if God is all good and also all powerful, then how can he (she/it) allow such terrible things to happen in the world? Indeed, there seems never any lack of terrible things happening all the time. Getting around this problem has often required asserting that humans have free will -- it's all our fault -- but if humans have free will, then there is a limit to God's power -- he wouldn't have power over our wills, for example; and that ends up contradicting with the All-powerful proposition.

So chuck God, and with him, meaning and purpose. This has been the modern project. Start fresh, write our own script. Do what we want, be free from all rules, regulations, controlling conditions, traditions, pain, fear, etc.

But wait. I just can't buy that. Life does have meaning. The universe has meaning. For me that meaning (and purpose) lies in realizing the nature and truth of this universal meaning.

There is no escape from pain and death; and why would you want to escape it? Closely examine that question. Without death there is no life. The old must give way to the new, and young. Sometimes a loss provides the seed for something great, yet to come. Our time here is brief -- like a water-bubble, or a wave in the great ocean. Like the water that rises from a mountain spring, we all must return to the Great Ocean sooner or later. We can wish for later, but there are no guarantees.

Indeed, humans make meaning. But we have to have raw material from which to build. In making meaning, we shouldn't imagine that we are separate from the universe. If we make meaning, then the universe makes meaning. In creating, and recreating, we realize:

The meaning was there all along.

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