Existentialism: The Search for Meaning
Meaning – Finally, the issue of meaning resonates powerful among many de-converts, and existentialists addressed it in great depth. Yalom here usefully distinguishes between cosmic meaning and terrestrial meaning (individual, “local” meaning – the meaning of my life, not of all life). His focus is on the latter, as cosmic meaning tends to be the purview of religious systems. Indeed, existentialism rests on the assumption that there is no cosmic meaning to life; there is only terrestrial meaning.
The tension we face is that, perhaps alone among the animals, we seem to hunger for meaning, we want to be told our lives serve a larger purpose – but they don’t. Yalom notes Camus’ observation: human beings are meaning-seeking animals in a universe that is meaning-neutral. There is no grand design to the world and hence, no meaning “out there” to be discovered. Yet we seem constituted, as creatures, to seek meaning anyway. Camus calls this state of affairs “absurd”, and it’s not hard to see why.
One can deal with this dilemma by seeking ready-made meanings in a system, such as fundamentalism, and there are few things about such totalizing ideologies more seductive than this aspect of them. How sweet the thrill in playing a part of the Greatest Story Ever Told! The Master of the Universe wants you! No greater antidote to the fear of a meaningless, “wasted” life has ever been devised. In a global, mass society such as ours, it is no wonder fundamentalism is on the rise.
But this solution, as before, is an evasion. Remember that fundamentalism, like religion in medieval Europe, is a “system” in the sense we are describing: a complete set of answers for all of life’s human problems. And like any system, submersion of the self in that system will tend to result in alienation from oneself. It is, effectively, cutting oneself off from the only place where meaning is to be had: one’s own experiential, flesh-and-blood life. Trying to view your life from the vantage point of a system is to abstract yourself from your life, to look at it in the third person. But it is only in the first-person that your life “comes alive” and truly matters to you. This is a slippery concept, so let me expand.
There is an old Zen Buddhist koan, an insoluble puzzle students are supposed to meditate on, wherein a disciple asks a Master, “What is Zen?” The Master says nothing but points at the moon. This, I think, is not unlike the idea that existentialists are trying to impart. Zen is not the finger, is not the gesture, is not the word “moon” – it is the immediate experience of seeing the moon oneself. To give any “answer”, in words or any other symbol, to “What is Zen” is to go astray, because Zen is unmediated first-person experience itself, and all symbols are, by definition, abstractions. In other words, there is no substitute for actually living. Learning about life, studying life, adopting an abstract meaning about what life is all about (be it religious or secular), is not the same as living your life. Those things can, like the Master’s finger, help point you to life and to creating your own meaning-experience (just like existentialist philosophy itself), but at some point study and musing must cease, and commitment in life must begin.
Or, to switch examples, consider the difference between someone who knows all about love, who has mastered all the best neurochemical, psychological, sociological, cultural, literary, poetic, and religious ideas about love – yet has never, in fact, actually loved. Meaning, Yalom argues with the existentialists, is had only by throwing oneself into life, by participating in life, not by obsessing over what a system says about life. He writes, “On this point most Western theological and atheist existential systems agree: it is good and right to immerse oneself in the stream of life.” (p. 431, italics original). Thus, to seek meaning by taking refuge in a system — an abstraction — is to lose precisely that which alone has the power to create meaning.
This is not to say that meaning cannot be created within, or using, religion. Indeed many existentialists were quite religious. But they tend to agree on the notion of what is sometimes called “subjective truth” – referring, essentially, not to the correspondence of thought with reality (objective truth), but to the way ideas or thought are lived, and thereby “become alive”. Truth, for the existentialists, must be appropriated, otherwise it is dead and meaningless. Saying true things about the world may be useful for some purposes, but does not and cannot create meaning unless it is made one’s own. Or, to say it another way, truth for you is that in which you fully immerse yourself. In so doing, it becomes your reality.
Yalom then goes on, very helpfully, to survey the sorts of activities that empirically do seem to create meaning for human beings. They include altruism, devotion to a cause, creativity, what he calls the “hedonistic” solution (i.e., fully tasting and experiencing all life has to offer), self-actualization/self-fulfillment (complete development of one’s potential), immersion in the life cycle, and self-transcendence (“striving toward something outside or above oneself”). All these things are concrete ways in which people can and do nurture meaning in their own lives – when they stop abstracting themselves out of their lives. So what, then, is the existentialist “answer” to our need for meaning in life?
Quit worrying about what it all means, and go live your life.