The search for meaning is a powerful motivator in human life. A life devoid of meaning feels empty and oppressive. And a collapse of meaning is potentially destructive as pathological beliefs and behaviors can rush in to fill the void. But what is meaning in this context, and how is it generated?
Meaning in general refers to “the end, purpose, or significance of something;” an “important or worthwhile quality.” The drive to find meaning in life may therefore be considered the desire to know and feel that one’s existence, experiences, and activities are contributing towards something inherently valuable–either now or in the future.
The degree to which we value something in this way is defined by our willingness to sacrifice. To say an object or future state is valuable is to say that we are willing to forego some other personal benefit in order to attain it.
A businessperson sacrifices time spent with family, working to climb the ladder of status and wealth; a sportsperson sacrifices physical comfort, pushing through pain barriers to extend her prowess; parents sacrifice their own life-goals to raise a happy, well-adjusted human being. Thus, meaning and sacrifice are inextricably linked. The depth of our life’s meaning is commensurate with the degree of our sacrifice.
Understanding the source of meaning from can be aided by highlighting its absence. A common example is , the often painful transition period that parents (particularly mothers) experience upon the departure of their children from the home. A loss of identity and meaning occurs because their existence and role in life was defined primarily by the status and duties of being a parent. When there is no child, there is no longer a parental role. If I am not a parent, then who am I? I’m nobody.
Another common example is the depression experienced upon retirement by high-achievers in the world of sports, entertainment, etc. It became so painful for Clarke Carlisle, a well-known UK footballer, that he attempted suicide during an after leaving the game. And in general, retirees face a in the likelihood of depression.
Our life’s meaning is therefore derived from our identity or self-definition: who or what we knowingly or unknowingly claim to be. Identity defines the roles that we play in the world; dictates the goals we pursue, the sacrifices we make on their behalf, and the activities that we engage in to achieve them; influences the relationships that we form and how we relate within them. Without this internal guidance, we feel lost, confused, and anxious.
We are susceptible to loss of meaning when we become dependent upon any changeable aspect of life for our identity and purpose. When circumstances change to make that role redundant, we suffer a sense of loss.
Drop Dependence, Not Enjoyment (2:15)
The question is, how can we develop a sense of meaning without at the same time becoming dependent upon the identity and role that we create? One way to mitigate the risk is to ensure that we haven’t invested our entire personality or identity in a single role. If our life is defined by several, independent roles we spread the risk, as it were.
However, this solution does not address the core of the problem: the dependency that leaves us vulnerable to a traumatic sense of loss in the first place. The genuine solution is two-fold. Firstly, it lies in deriving a sense of meaning from a pursuit that does not rely on external circumstances, providing goals and activities that are self-sustaining. Secondly, the pursuit itself should promote increased independence from external changes per se, greater self-sufficiency. The goal of self-development meets these criteria.
Self-development is the reduction of immature, egocentric desires and attachments: in short, selfishness. By relating to the world through these, we become dependent upon external relationships for inner satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the range of experiences that human life has to offer. But our enjoyment and well-being are put in jeopardy when we relate to them through selfishness.
Self-development begins by recognizing that selfishness harms important aspects of life: moral clarity and intellectual independence; genuine connection and harmony in relationships; purposeful, fulfilling action; material success. Understanding that these goods cannot thrive in an inner climate of selfishness, we set an in life: a goal of growth beyond existing limitations. We then implement self-development practices to effect the change that we wish to see. (The practice of self-development has been described in more detail ).
The ideal thus becomes the primary goal in life for which we are willing to sacrifice. The question is, what is it that we sacrifice in service of the ideal? It is the very attitudes and attachments that we are striving to overcome. Practically, this means questioning the quality of our life’s activities:
What am I doing? Feeling? Thinking?
Why? Where is it taking me?
What values are embodied by this action, this feeling, this thought? Is this who I want to be?
Who do I want to be? What values do I want to embody? How do those values express as action, emotion, thought?
What is Meant By ‘Higher Values’? (5:35)
Self-development is thus concerned only with improving the way that we relate the world. As such, it provides a sense of meaning that is wholly independent of external or personal circumstances. Circumstances may or may not meet our expectations or needs. At each moment we have an opportunity to re-orient our thinking and feeling towards our present experience to elevate it above the mundane.
Thus, self-development fulfils the first of the above criteria. As our practice becomes established, we are assured that if life changes and our roles and identities fall away, we always have a goal and actions in life that we can rely on to give us stability and direction.
The consistent practice of self-development also satisfies the second criterion. As we identify intellectually and emotionally with the ideal’s higher values, they become absorbed into the personality. We then naturally mature out of lower values and attachments. This liberates us from the dependency upon various aspects of life for our subjective well-being. We enjoy greater personal freedom and a willingness to share our enhanced resources with others.
Sacrificing the comfort of the known, and stepping into an unknown and uncertain future self is not always easy. Foregoing immediate satisfaction for a less tangible future one takes strength of character. We derive this strength anew daily from our practices: exercising our thinking and reflection, thus honing our convictions; cultivating gratitude and wonderment; acting in service to the community. The sting of sacrifice then becomes no sting, but an affirmation that the life we are living has a meaning greater than the object we are giving up.
Inspired by the growth that we see, we recast our ideal higher, setting our sights on greater maturity. Our activity becomes freed from the constraints of selfishness. Our experiences encompasses greater emotional and intellectual freedom. Life opens up into a limitless expanse.
This is why any external point of reference can never give us a consistent sense of meaning in life. Any external gain is constrained by the laws of diminishing returns; and (to use a phrase adopted from xxxx) hedomic adaptation.
We constantly seek to escape the mundane and enter into something of greater depth. We seek to find it through personal relationships, art, career, good works, morality, and so forth. The feeling that life has meaning traces a line of inner inspiration. Inspiration itself encompasses two aspects. First is an intellectual grasping of the value to ba achieved, and second is an emotional upliftment.
Our internal mechanisms and external responses for dealing with situations in the past may have been wholly appropriate for our maturity level and circumstances. Over time they become familiar and reliable–even if they are not entirely effective. However, what was adaptive yesterday may be pathological today. What was progressive, regressive. To remain static is to go backwards, we must progress along with the natural arc of life. Author George Martin, in A Dance With Dragons, conveys this idea succinctly with the advice given to one of its characters facing a heavy burden of responsibility: “Kill the boy and let the man be born.“