“It is here that we encounter the central theme of existentialism:
to live is to suffer,
to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.”
- Victor Frankl
What’s the point?
We all get up in the morning, go to bed in the evening, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, and work, day after day after day, but …
What’s it all about? Why? Where is this all leading?
“Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in work.
They are carrying bricks in an open field.
As soon as they have stacked all the bricks at one end of the field,
they proceed to transport them to the opposite end.
This continues without stop and every day of every year
they are busy doing the same thing.
One day one of the morons stops long enough
to ask himself what he is doing.
He wonders what purpose there is in carrying the bricks.
And from that instant on he is not quite as content
with his occupation as he had been before.
I am the moron who wonders why he is carrying the bricks.”
- suicide note
Many individuals view the issue of “meaninglessness” - asking “what’s the point?” - as a problem, an aberration, a temporary spell of teen angst or “middle-age-crisis,” a wrong or warped perspective of reality. If those who think that way would just “snap out of it,” they say, then the person would see that life is really hunky-dory, life is really just a bowl of peaches, and there’s really nothing to be concerned or worried about. Life is not absurd, life makes sense, life is meaningful, and anyone who sees things any other way must be mistaken.
However, reality is just the opposite. Those who are concerned about meaninglessness and ask such things as “What’s the point?” are actually often more perceptive and sensitive to the real and actual condition of things than those who don’t. In short, they are often more in touch with reality.
It may well be a fact that life, at least at is is usually lived, actually is absurd when seen from a certain perspective.
“Ivan Ilych’s life
had been most simple and most ordinary
and therefore most terrible.”
- Leo Tolstoy
There is ample evidence for this - as found, for example, by simply reading a few history books, or even just a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. While Frankl’s book may not provide the solution to the experience of meaninglessness, it presents an almost perfect case study in how absurd, cruel, unjust, pointless, and simply insane life can sometimes (er, often) be.
And those who are not in denial of these facts or experiences, and have the capacity and willingness to face these fairly unpleasant realities, tend to be, naturally, a little bugged by them.
This includes many intelligent and perceptive individuals throughout history. Such as, for example …
- and Herman Melville …
“… take high abstracted man along;
and he seems a wonder, a grandeur and a woe.
But from the same point,
Take mankind in the mass,
and for the most part,
they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates …”
- and William Shakespeare …
“O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world …
This goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory;
this most excellent canopy, the air, look you,
this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,
it appears no other thing to me
but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!
in form, in moving, how express an admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god!
And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
man delights not me; no, nor woman neither …
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life … ”
- and the author(s) of a 2,500 year-old Sanskrit tale …
“… Because I have no wish for victory, Krishna,
nor for a kingdom, nor for its pleasures.
How can we want a kingdom, Govinda, or its pleasures or even life,
When those for whom we want a kingdom,
and its pleasures, and the joys of life,
are here in this field of battle about to give up their wealth and their life?
Facing us in the field of battle are teachers, fathers and sons;
grandsons, grandfathers, wives’ brothers; mothers’ brothers and fathers of wives.
These I do not wish to slay, even if I myself am slain.
Not even for the kingdom of the three worlds:
how much less for a kingdom of the earth!”
- The Bhagavad Gita
- and King Solomon …
“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun;
and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight;
and that which is wanting cannot be numbered …
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought,
and on the labor that I had labored to do:
and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit,
and there was no profit under the sun …”
Some individuals - but only a few who possess a certain measure of intelligence - see life in a certain way that it appears meaningless. After all, we live for several years, then die. We work and work, but eventually everything we are working on crumbles to dust. What, then, is the point?
“She’s polishing the brass on the Titanic, man.
It’s all going down.”
- Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Why, since life is inevitably full of suffering, do we go through it?
Or in a sense, this is another way of asking “Why Are We Here?”
“The truth is that your daily life is but a thin strip of experience
barely seeming in the profundity of who you are at depth.
Your activities and relationships never capture the grandeur
that wants to unfold from your heart into the world.
There may be moments of palpable glory,
brief openings through which magnificence effulgence without curtail,
but mainly your life is a tragic almost-there
of unfulfilled longing and partial gestures of tense effort.”
- David Deida
Getting a Handle on “The Problem”
The experience of meaninglessness, or seeing life as empty, pointless, absurd, and even stupid, can be approached in at least three broad ways:
- This view (that “life is meaningless”) is an illusion; life is in truth meaningful, we just for some reason can’t see it.
- This view is accurate; life is in truth meaningless, and some individuals are merely sensitive and perceptive enough to see it.
- Life is truthfully “meaningless” in some ways and “meaningful” in other ways, and it depends on the state of a person’s perspective on the matter.
So what can we do about it?
“It is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere
that it begins to have meaning.”
- P.D. Ouspensky
Meaningless as Loss of Attachment
Many individuals might experience meaninglessness as a kind of depression after experiencing a loss.
For example, suppose a person loses a house, a car, or a person who meant a great deal to them. After this loss happens, the individual can experience a painful “emptiness,” an absence, something like a newly-lost tooth of the soul, which feels extremely uncomfortable.
The process of healing from this loss lies in grieving and eventually accepting the loss, and allowing oneself to move on, honoring what has been lost while continuing to live.
And since, in the way life is built, loss is an inevitable part of things, a large part of this aspect lies in preparing oneself . .
Preventing Meaninglessness from Attachments
In a way, some unnecessary suffering can be avoided through not getting wrongfully and improportionately “attached” to certain things, whether they be houses, cars, jobs, relationships, ideas, theories, or even people.
There is a phrase “All is change,” pointing to the truth that everything changes (except possibly for change itself) - which is a short version of the Buddhist teaching on “Impermanence.” When we truly understand “impermanence,” then we can also understand that becoming too attached to anything - because any “thing” is, given a long enough time span, necessarily impermanent - then suffering, when that change comes, is inevitable.
This is why many spiritual teachers speak of an attitude of “detachment” - which is not coldly keeping oneself removed and distant from life, but maintaining a proper perspective in things, and not making them the ground and nature of one’s own purpose of life. In a way, ignoring impermanence is like looking for “IT” in all the wrong places, or searching for something permanent in the impermanent, for God in places or things where God will not be found.
“It is not for man to seek, or even to believe in, God.
He only has to refuse his ultimate love to everything that is not God.
This refusal does not presuppose any belief.
It is enough to recognize what is obvious to any mind:
that all the goods of this world,
past, present, and future, real or imaginary,
are finite and limited and radically incapable of satisfying
the desire that perpetually burns within us
for an infinite and perfect good.”
- Simone Weil
Meaninglessness can arrive for a person who sees life as more or less a series of “games” - and none of those games are worth playing.
This can be viewed as spending one’s entire life working one’s way to the “top of the ladder, only to find that there is nothing there, slaving away at a disagreeable job for one’s entire life, only to be rewarded with a demotion, mandatory retirement, or a cheap gold watch; giving one’s life to a business, a relationship, a family, a work of art, only to come in the end to see that all the work, sweat, and pain involved is essentially for nothing.
This is the situation for many sensitive and perceptive individuals like me, who see through many of the games, and so, don’t see them as worth getting involved in.
The "solution,” in this case, lies in finding “a game worth playing.” How does one do this? Well, every individual finds the way for themselves … but many alternate option are available, such as, for example, the search for God, the search for Love, or one suggestion proposed by a guy named Robert de Ropp is something called “The Master Game” …
“The fact is that this is what society is and always has been:
A symbolic action system,
a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior,
designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism …
It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system
is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized.
It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”
- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Meaninglessness as an urge to “Grow”
One perspective on meaninglessness is that it is actually a positive sign that we are growing more mature as human beings.
For example, when we were children, most of us enjoyed playing with toy cars or dolls or sandboxes. After a period of time, we “outgrew” these toys, and as we grew older, we moved on to other things, such as making money, buying houses, and having sex.
If we had never gotten “tired” or “bored” in a way, of playing with sandboxes, then we probably never would have moved on, never taking on larger responsibilities in the business of life.
Often, “meaninglessness” is the same process on another level. We know or have proven that we can survive in the world at a fairly basic level - we can pay bills, work jobs, have relationships, and so on.
But the question still arises - “Is this all there is?”
When a sense of dissatisfaction, boredom, or the pointlessness of life arises, this may be a symptom that we have outgrown, in a sense, our current goals and dreams and activities, and need to move on to newer, more meaningful, more challenging tasks. This does not mean abandoning one’s family or job, but rather, perhaps looking more deeply into the big questions of life, or digging more deeply into figuring out why we, or specifically, you, are here.
(Note: This type of scenario is played out in the movie Scent of a Woman. Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, weary and bored with life, makes one last run with all his old pleasures (fine dining, lodging, women, a Ferrari) - but the old pleasures aren’t enough to make his life meaningful … so he has to discover it in a new way …)
Meaninglessness as Created by Wrong Meditation
In the thought of spiritual teacher Albert Low, Low speaks of the single fundamental “koan” of life - the single “problem” which gives rise to all other “problems” - as the dilemma of “participant” verses “observer,” a fundamental split at the core of our being, so that we are at different times “participating” in life and at others “observing” life, and the tension entailed in being sometimes one, or the other, or both, or neither.
Some meditations and spiritual teachers try to resolve this dilemma in a wrong way, that produces experiences of meaninglessness.
“There are many pitfalls along the path of meditation,
but there are two principal ones:
the first in which the meditator seeks to be pure observer
by suppressing the (identity of being a) participator (in life),
the other in which the meditator seeks to be pure participant.
In both there is the search for the One at the expense of two …
Both extremes, observing and participating, simply "get rid of” ego by a trick.
Both, if used as a form of meditation, lead students
to resent the “interference” of life with their “practice”:
on the one hand, seeing life more and more
as a meaningless parade,
scorning people who participate and get involved;
and on the other hand, feeling more and more put upon by things,
feeling increasing self-pity and seeking quiet
- or paradoxically, seeking intense orgiastic situations
such as acid rock, strobe lights, drugs, or the rallies of demagogues and faith healers.“
- from The Iron Cow of Zen by Albert Low
Solutions to Meaninglessness?
There is a vast different between two things:
- a random and unrelated series of events ("The post office opened, then the sun went down, then a dog ate his food …”), and
- a story.
What is the difference? In a way, the difference between a mere series of events and a “story” is that a story has “meaning” and mere events in and of themselves, do not.
One aspect of anything resembling a “solution” to meaninglessness, then, might have something to do with whether your life is a random and unrelated series of events, or a story.
While there is definitely no quick fix to the problem of meaninglessness, and each individual must approach the situation in their own way, there may well be some general guidelines to finding a “cure.”
Many suggest the following:
- addressing potential emotional issues underlying the perception of meaninglessness
- “creating” a meaning for your life
- finding whether or not actual meaning in life does exist - and if it does, finding it.
“Human beings, whoever they may be,
consciously or unconsciously look for a meaning to their lives.
They need a reason to live and, each day, try to find it
through all that their domestic, social and professional life give them.
But in reality no success, no material possession can give them the meaning of life,
precisely because it is a matter of ‘meaning’,
and meaning is not a material reality;
it can only be found up above on the subtle planes.
In the lower regions, we can find only forms.
Of course we can fill up the form with content,
which is in the feeling, the sensation we experience
when we truly love an object, a person or an activity.
But feeling is often temporary,
and when we lose it, we are left with a sense of emptiness and pain.
So we must look beyond the content for the meaning.
When we reach the meaning, we are fulfilled.”
- Mikhaël Omraam Aïvanhov