The meaning of life: What is it, or is there one, or is it all relative?
Let’s answer one question at a time, and try to go from the simplest to the more complex issues.
Is the meaning of life relative? There are over 6 billion people on this planet today, and billions more who came before, and billions more to come. Ask any of them, in all their various situations in life, and you will rarely receive the same answer. What gives life meaning to one, obviously is not what gives meaning to another. Does the meaning of our lives come from an external source or from without. Does God give our life meaning? Or if there is no God, then does our life not have any meaning at all. That is a bigger question and issue, so I will leave that one alone for now. Assuming that we must give or find meaning within ourselves, I think the answers are going to be very different. However overall there may be some commonality.
Some say happiness is what gives life meaning. Some will then ask, “What is happiness?” This is not a one-size fits all type of question. Some people take great joy in the physical pleasures of the flesh. They want to eat good food, drink good wine, good sex etc. Life can’t be all about the hedonistic pleasures. Can it? How do you feel if your life is one of misery and poverty? How do you find joy in situations like that it? How is life meaningful to the person who doesn’t know where his next meal is from or where is he going to sleep. The meaning of his life is one of constant struggle to survive. Happiness is not part of his equation. Does that mean that person has no meaning? Does he get another chance at achieving happiness, if the meaning of life is experiencing the joy of being?
On the other hand, some would say that being good and moral is the answer. Socrates was into living the virtuous life. He lost many things in his search, some would say, including his life. Is there an ultimate joy of only doing good works and forsaking other aspects of your life? Mother Teresa, was she happy? Did she take pleasure in helping the sick and poor? Most people would say yes, however, she saw a lot of pain and suffering as well. Did this pain and suffering detract from any pleasure she felt from doing her good works? Is joy and happiness not a physical sense? Or, is it something we only truly experience in a mental context?
Some say ignorance is bliss. Others would say that knowledge is the key to finding happiness. Is it? Sometimes it truly is better off knowing. If for example, I was happy knowing that many people loved me, only to find out later that it wasn’t true. They lied for some reason. Was I better off not knowing the truth? Does it matter that I went through my life not being loved (the truth), but believed a lie? Is that true happiness and joy? I don’t think so. What about a life filled with knowledge in general? This is man’s way of becoming one with the world around us. Knowing about the physical relationship of the world around us interact with us as humans must have some bearing on our sense of knowledge. But then again do we really know anything. The standard for true knowledge is having a true justified belief about something. However, Edmund Gettier cast much doubt on that whole concept. So do we really have knowledge of anything?
So now that we have not answered what is happiness, can we ask what makes us think that we are happy? Is happiness just a physical condition caused by chemicals our body produces in reaction to certain stimuli? If that is the case then perhaps chemical altering drugs are the answer. Alcohol and narcotics have been some of man’s traditional answers. However, we see that doesn’t work for everyone and the amount of pleasure it produces is usually outweighed by some other physically damaging negative side effects. If happiness are just chemicals that affect our brains telling our bodies that we have happiness then perhaps we should create a happiness machine. Something like the Matrix where everything seems real and happy and we would experience “the best life has to offer.” Would we be happy? Perhaps, the experience of making one happy with this machine is not the same for everyone. Besides the mere fact that we know it is the machine making us happy may be enough to ruin the illusion.
So far, I think that I have come to the realization that the meaning of life may be very well be a relative to each individual and not an overall state of being. For me, for my life to have some meaning, I would want to experience my life with a sense of balance. Balance for me would be that I would want a certain amount of pleasurable events in my life so that I attain those pleasurable sensations. However, I would not want to engage in this hedonistic lifestyle to the expense of my losing my character or morals. I would want to lead a somewhat virtuous life so that others would consider me a good person. And I would not forsake the gathering of knowledge about the world I live in or about the people with whom I interact.
Another aspect of balance that I think must be included in having a meaning to one’s life is also pain and sorrow. There are events in our life that certainly do bring a person pain and sorrow. Events like the death of a loved one, the heartbreak of losing a lover, the struggles that test our resolve, or the grief that makes us stronger. Pain and sorrow are part of the human condition. I don’t think that if I were to be able to forego these experiences I would not be living my life to its full extent.
Another aspect of my life having meaning is my family. Not all people care to have a family, and that is why the meaning of life is relative. My wife and children are the sources of many of my pleasures, some of my pains, the reason of my virtue, and they provide a drive for my seeking knowledge. The next question one may ask is “what would happen to my life having meaning if something happened to my family.” Would my life no longer have any meaning? Yes, it would, as this would be just one of the many events in my life that would allow me to grow as a human being.
I am still searching for the meaning of life. And, I will continue for the rest of my life. However, until I come to the end of my life and determine for myself what my life’s ultimate meaning was, I am content for now.