When I was studying English Literature at University College London, I remembered my English mentor’s first sentence was, “Cristy we can discuss anything, just don’t try to ask me stuff like ‘what is the meaning of life?” I laughed until I realised he was deadpan serious. I then imagined that he must have gotten this question all the time from my fellow students.
The Four Fundamental Questions
It is natural at some point in our lives to have pondered upon ‘the meaning of life’ as it is believed to be one of life’s four fundamental questions, namely:
Who am I?
Where am I?
Why am I here?
Where do I go when I die?
I know the first time I started to ask myself these questions, was during my adolescent phase. Curiously, the answers I came up for these questions have not been static but have evolved throughout the course of my life.
Looking to Religion for Answers
Born to a missionary father, during my childhood years I was raised to view these questions through the lens of Christianity.
I was a child of God who was brought to this earth to learn valuable lessons. My purpose for being here was to share God’s love with others, so that when we die, we could all reunite in heaven.
This is of course a very simplified version and there are nuances in how Christianity is interpreted or expressed, but this was the essence of my own personal upbringing.
Naturally a curious person, I went on my own spiritual journey to explore what other faiths had to say about this and in doing so I learned that there were more similarities than differences. At the heart of these faiths was that the reason we are here is to practice compassion.
Of course, there are differences such as believing in a God or divine presence that is external from you versus one that lies within you. The belief in heaven or the afterlife versus reincarnation, but at the core, religion’s common denominator is to have compassion.
“The purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
Different Schools of Thought
But what about those of us, who do not subscribe to any religious practices? Maybe you were never raised religiously, or like me, did not identify with any one particular religious thought form. Where are we then to look for these answers?
There are schools of thought found within science, philosophy and the new age movement whose answers range from ‘the meaning of life consist of the meaning you give it’ to ‘there is no meaning at all, life is one big absurdity’.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”— Albert Camus
It seems like on one end there is religion that attributes meaning and purpose to one’s life through faith in a higher power and on the other side of the spectrum, life has no inherent meaning at all. That as Albert Camus believed to be the ‘paradox of the absurd’ is to be caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a universe that has no inherent meaning.
But where religion offers us a space we can turn to for solace and strength during challenging times, where do the non-religious turn to? Sure, I can go along with Albert Camus that life is irrational, it has definitely felt like that in my own life at times, but how do I deal with genuine challenges? The dark night of the soul moments?
Man’s Search for Meaning
What I have found to be the most satisfying approach during these trying times is to adopt Victor Frankl’s attitude towards life. A former prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how he managed to survive the horrors of the Holocaust and lays the foundation for logotherapy.
A therapy that directs the reader to not perceive their suffering as useless, but to find purpose in it and thus see it as a challenge. That when we adopt a stronger, more resilient and positive attitude towards life, especially during the most trying of times, we will find a more hopeful, higher meaning of life.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Meaning of Life Comes from Within
Maybe, in the end the message that has been echoing throughout history is less about trying to find the answers to these big questions and more about how to live a life of compassion, for oneself and one’s fellowman.
That whether you believe in heaven or reincarnation (or nothing at all), let it not diminish the aliveness in the moment of now. Yes, maybe this life is a bit absurd, and things happen for no seeming good reason, but what a gift to be able to decide how we want this absurd, crazy colorful life to mean to us.