The better angels of our nature - making meaning

This post is part of a series of posts written during the coronavirus pandemic. For a little bit of context read the first post here.

  

Anything in life is bearable so long as it has meaning.

Humans are fundamentally a meaning-making species. We tell others and ourselves stories about the world and our place within it in order to be able to make sense of the seeming chaos and randomness that rule our universe. Our minds are ill-equipped to deal with chaos and randomness. But throughout our evolutionary history, our species has learned how to take senseless occurrences and weave them into stories full of meaning. Stories that infuse our sense of self with the strength and power to bare almost anything.

Making meaning to interpret and communicate the world around us is fundamental to what it means to be human. The ability to use this skill to transform the pain and suffering that are the inevitable companions to life, into something of value, is a beautiful and extraordinary quality.

The quest for meaning is so universal that we never even stop to ask ourselves why it is so essential to us for life and our deeds within it not to be meaningless. But essential it is.

And so we write books and poetry and paint and dance and even turn our scientific lens on meaning in the hope of being able to pin it down. As a result, a great body of work rests within the collective output of humanity on this subject. From ancient theological writings to the cutting edge of modern science, most of the answers we discover are cyclical and self-repeating: love, connection, creation, transcendence. 

One gentle voice from within our own lifetime stands out within this field. Having endured the holocaust and survived what so many didn’t, Viktor Frankl wrote a beautiful book called Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl writes that “there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone” and the third is “by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

The first, he says, “the way of achievement and accomplishment” is quite obvious. But to illustrate the second and third points, he goes into a little more detail: “The second way of finding meaning in life is by experiencing something - such as goodness, truth and beauty - by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.” Referencing Edith-Weisskopf-Joelson, he draws our attention to the “notion that experiencing can be as valuable as achieving is.” He points out that this emphasis on experiencing as fundamentally valuable compensates for the one-sided emphasis within our culture “on the external world of achievements at the expense of the internal world of experience”.

“Most important, however,” he writes “is the third avenue to meaning in life: …we may find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves”

For Frankl making meaning “boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality” or, to express it more simply “to become aware of what can be done about a given situation.” His point is that the very ability to infuse our suffering with a deeper meaning serves to transform suffering into the potential for unrivalled growth. He explains that “in some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning”.

In Herman Hesse’s beautiful book Siddharta, Hesse writes: “I have always believed and still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value”. This is the triumph of the human experience: our ability to create stories that shape our world and our experiences within it into a narrative full of significance and value. Only we possess the ability to transform our bleakest moments into personal triumphs that provide the kindling for growth and self-development.

Times change, our understanding is updated but one thing endures: whether we look for answers within ancient texts or modern science, when we probe deep enough to ask questions that are fundamental, timeless, and profoundly human, the answers every generation discovers anew are always the same: life is meaningful because we give it meaning. Through what we create, through how we relate to one another and the wider world around us, and when all hope is lost, through the very act of infusing senseless suffering with a meaning so profound that it transforms the course of our life allowing us to grow and flourish. 

In his beautiful poem titled “So?” American poet Leonard Nathan muses on this profoundly human ability to make meaning against all odds.

Pointing out that achievement and grandeur are not a prerequisite for a meaningful life, he reminds us that we have all been “given just the one life” but that we have also been given “the costly gifts of hunger, choice, and pain with which to raise a modest shrine to meaning”. What an incredible gift. How beautifully human.

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