What is the meaning of life?
So…I was hospitalized again. A couple weeks ago, I went into another mood bungee jump and ended up in the hospital. At first, I thought it came out of nowhere. I even thought I was ‘missing something’ in my recovery process, since I kept cycling between typical and atypical function. As I reflected, I saw myself going in between home, school, and the hospital, in what seemed like a neverending cycle. I called myself ‘broken’, and ‘weak’, and ‘powerless’, because I thought that in order to recover, I needed to break free of the cycle. In the hospital, I doubted the proficiency of my healthcare team because I kept relapsing despite my best personal efforts to recover. Resting at home, I felt the strong current pushing me forcefully back onto the educational conveyor belt. Indeed, the point of ‘recovering’ was to get myself back on track. On what track? The conveyor belt track – the one I saw everyone around me standing on, waving and passing by. I felt a strong sensation that I couldn’t be ‘left behind’ – that I had to return to school to ‘resume’ my life. And yet, when I returned to school, I realized I had not dealt with the core issue, and this brought me tumbling back to the hospital setting.
So what is the core issue? I pondered many possibilities over the next week or so. I thought maybe in order to break the cycle, I had to physically displace myself from all three states of living. I had to travel far away, effectively removing myself from the home, the hospital, and the school environment. There, I would soak in other cultures’ perspectives and values on and in life – perhaps enabling myself to search for a reason for me to continue my current path through school. Or not. Realistically, this would be a short-lived fantasy. There are a number of reasons why I would not be able to travel right now, but it is pointless to list them and pick them apart. This is because I was thinking about the issue all wrong. Instead of breaking the cycle walls completely, the core issue was finding the point of my existence. The point of myself continuing to struggle, and hope, and dream, and fail, and suffer.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the true reason why I kept relapsing was because I hadn’t once thought about why I was doing anything at all. As doubts about my current path through life seeped in, I realized I had landed squarely in one of the most debated and difficult questions of life.
What is the meaning of life?
This threw me into a fit of despair, of course, because if thousands of philosophers and non-philosophers haven’t figured it out, how would I ever find an answer? How could I possibly fix this core issue and get on with my life?
I found myself searching desperately for an answer. I looked at famous quotes about the meaning of life. “Surely one of these quotes would resonate with me and I could just get on with my life,” I hoped.
Some meaning of life quotes I compiled:
“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.” – Viktor E. Frankl
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” – Alan Watts
“Only an artist can interpret the meaning of life.” – Novalis
“What is the difference between ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’? When you like a flower, you just pluck it. But when you love a flower, you water it daily. One who understands this, understands life.” – Buddha
“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell
“The meaning of life…I think the meaning of life is, I think it’s love.” – Julie Benz
“Why waste time thinking about the meaning of life? Just enjoy life.” – A friend
What are we really asking when we ask about the meaning of life?
I was frustrated. “These answers are not answers,” I lamented. There are people who believe there is no point in finding an answer, and there are people who try to create an answer that applies generally to every human being, and there are people who try to answer the question using only the words in the question.
Then I realized. It is clear that there is no right answer. I knew this even before I even really thought about it. It is also clear that there is no wrong answer. But what if the scope of the question itself is wrong? Instead of ‘what is the meaning of life’, maybe it is more fruitful to ask ‘what is the meaning of doing anything at all’. The difference? The former focuses on a broader scale of life – a generalized answer that sweeps through one’s entire lifetime. The latter looks at everything that makes you you at an instantaneous level. You may be thinking, “That’s cheating Nico, you can’t just change the question!!”. Bear with me here. I’m not changing the question. Just changing the path I am taking to attempt to answer it.
The Japanese created a pretty cool concept: ikigai. The traditional use of the idea of ikigai is to find something discrete to do with one’s life, which combines what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at. But at its core, ikigai is simply the reason that you occupy yourself with anything in life. Why am I not just lying down doing nothing all day and why am I not committing suicide?
Well, to address the latter…biologically speaking, humans instinctively want to keep living. We are just like all other animals in this way. People who are suicidal do not truly want to stop living. They simply are in so much pain that they seek a way to relieve themselves from it. It doesn’t matter how much you try to ‘come to terms with your death’ while you are alive. That very statement is non-sensical. At the end of life, you will think about the experiences that you will not be able to have after you no longer exist, and you will grieve the experiences you will not be able to have. No amount of preparation will prepare anyone for death. In a way, we are forced into the madness of life by our very essence as human beings and as animals.
So why aren’t we limp vegetables all of our lives? Unfortunately, the conclusion I’ve arrived at doesn’t add much more to the discussion. And that is because there is no discussion to be had in the first place. One’s reason for living cannot be answered with one answer. This damned question, “What is the meaning of life?”, is one that can only be answered by another question, “What is the meaning of doing anything at all…right now?”. Repeatedly. It’s not that the answer changes with time. It’s more that a new answer is brought to light every time the question is asked. And collectively, all these ‘answers’ combine as the materials to build an answer for “What is the meaning of life?”.
The human experience as a whole is not quantifiable.
Neither humans nor their whole experience are measurable tangents, because the act of measurement requires a standard to be measured against. We know what 1 metre looks like. We know what 1 litre is. We know what 1 -insert any object here- looks like. We can measure a standard of living by compiling describable pieces of the human experience from a large number of people living in a certain area. But we cannot measure the human experience because we cannot explain it. There are no units to the human experience, nor is there a possibility for a ratio…as there are no two human experiences that are wholly directly comparable.
Thus, the meaning of life is not explainable by any human language and not measurable by any standard. So how can we even communicate outside of ourselves about what the meaning of life is? We can choose to think forever about the meaning of life, but communicating it to others is impossible. “But Nico, how are you communicating all this to us, then??” Well, you see, I am not giving you an answer, am I? I only presented a framework for what I think the meaning of life may be, and then told you that is not explainable, and not measurable. But then – is it futile to even ask?
No. A thousand times no. You see, by the very act of asking this question repeatedly, we are spurred to action, whether in thought or in physical movement or in feeling emotion. These actions create our reasons for living at this very moment…’instantaneously’. Collectively, these actions form what we call…the meaning of life. I don’t know what the meaning of life is. But you could say that the meaning of life spurs you to occupy yourself with whatever you are occupying yourself with at every single moment in life. We can describe what the meaning of life does, but not what it is. How phenomenal it is that we are able to look for an answer all our lives, but whether or not we decide to accept or not accept our inability to find a discrete answer, the meaning of life pushes us forward when we do anything.
I really wish I could make a concluding statement about all this. How nice it would be if I could make one of those quote blocks highlighting the most important or descriptive part of what I just wrote. But in general, I have found that looking for any quotes about the meaning of life is meaningless. But trying to understand the meaning of life isn’t meaningless at all. Usually this is the part of any form of writing where the author encapsulates their thoughts in a condensed format, but hopefully you see how impossible that is for a post about the meaning of life.
If you asked me right now why I am doing what I am doing (in this case, writing about the meaning of life), I can tell you that a) I felt stuck in a dizzying array of thoughts and wanted to capture and organize them in some way, b) I think the whole concept of the meaning of life is fascinating, and love thinking about it even if there is no way for me to grasp or communicate it, and c) I am procrastinating from brainstorming questions to ask my psychiatrist tomorrow about my next treatment steps. But in another second, I will have completely new answers to the same question. All these answers collectively form the meaning of life, yet I can never describe its full nature. It’s frustrating and refreshing at the same time. Oh, what it is to be human and to be able to think beyond eating, surviving, and reproducing, right?
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),