Updated: Jul 14, 2019
I was recently asked: When life has lost its meaning, where do you look for renewed faith in life and humanity? Notice that the question doesn't mention "God." The person who was inquiring no longer believes that the traditional answers and explanations of religion are tenable or useful.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Life has no meaning a priori. It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
The idea that there is no inherent meaning to life can be a frightening proposition. We'd like to believe that there is an absolute meaning to which we can stop at any moment and reorient our lives, especially in times when we feel we've lost our way. In many ways the idea of "God" is an abstraction of the ideal of ultimate and absolute meaning. We ascribe ultimate and absolute meaning to God, and therefore we find our path forward by orienting our lives in the world to the existence of God and our relationship to God.
What if I said to you something like, "There is no inherent or absolute meaning to life and there's nothing or no one who can definitively tell you what it is or should be; you're gonna have to just figure it out yourself." A lot of people would not like this explanation. Determining the meaning of life is quite a daunting task. We feel unqualified for such a undertaking. I still can't figure out how to properly program my sports watch, much less resolve the meaning of life. At least the watch has instructions.
That a person must determine and forge their lives according to a meaning they create for themselves feels like a great burden to bear. What follows are a few recommendations on a reasonable way to go about this.
1. Stop searching for meaning, start creating meaning
The idea that life is meaningless or void of absolute meaning is vexing to many people. They assume that the only other alternative is that life must be random, absurd and pointless. In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Hence, “Absurdism” is a philosophical school of thought stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail. The problem here is not that life has no meaning; it’s that the meaning of life is not something you “find.” “Finding meaning” is an empty proposition. We are not here to find meaning, we are just here. While here, we make meaning through our actions and choices. The meaningless of life is not a curse but an invitation. It's not a matter of searching for meaning, but creating it. Human beings are not born into a world of inherent meaning, we are born into the world as meaning makers.
2. Choose your tools broadly
What tools are at your exposal to create meaning for your life? In my view, this is one of the most hopeful, fulfilling and transformative aspects of taking responsibility for nurturing a meaningful life. In my own journey of making meaning for myself I have utilized the natural and social sciences, philosophy, the arts and religion, study of history, spiritual practice, and my own personal experience. There's a self-correcting measure to creating meaning for your life if you choose your tools broadly. If you go down one path exclusively without proper knowledge and consideration of others, you run the risk of selling yourself short or sabotaging the process altogether. Following the way of religion without proper regard for science is problematic, as is following the way of science without proper regard for philosophy, and excluding the arts or spiritual practice cuts ourselves off from some of the most transcendent aspects of the human experience. Even within various fields or areas of exploration and knowledge, people firmly plant their flag in one "ism" or another, to the exclusion of other ideas and views. Close-mindedness is one of the greatest obstacles to creating a meaningful life, while open-mindedness yields great benefits.
3. Order your life accordingly
Creating meaning for your life is not simply immersing yourself in books of philosophy. You can read Seneca's On the Shortness of Life or Lucretius' On the Nature of the Universe until the cows come home, but you still must do something. The meaning of life is not something you work out entirely in your head, you must experience yourself living a meaningful life through your choices and actions. The question is: Are your daily actions, choices, habits, relationships and endeavors aligned with and an expression of what you deeply value, believe and hold to be meaningful about your life? Without marshalling your daily life according to the ideas, values and beliefs you fancy in your mind, you will suffer a nagging and vexing cognitive dissonance and disharmony. It's easy to get lost in the existential quest and quagmire of determining the meaning of life rather than take responsibility for what we do with the life we've got.
It's true that life has no inherent or absolute meaning. Life has the meaning we create and bring to it. It makes no sense to spin your wheels asking a question to which you are the only answer.