No Universal Meaning
Five years ago I sat with a colleague in a small Italian restaurant. We grew-up in our careers together, our lives were changing, and we were now only able to hang 1-2 times per year. She was the one coworker with whom philosophical convos seemed inevitable. With everyone else it was just typical life or work stuff.
That night I remember revealing to her what I had concluded over the past several weeks, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it:
There is no intrinsic point or meaning to life.
She had nothing to say… other than agree. We quickly went on to talk about other things. At least the pasta was nice.
I remember this night vividly, not because of a long and elaborate and illuminating convo, but because of a short and blunt and obviously true one – leaving us both at a loss for words.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Sometimes you need to re-break a bone in order for it to heal properly. Sometimes medicine tastes awful, but the patient needs it.
In these cases, unpleasant experiences make room for what follows. The soil of the mind is tilled and fertilized, and lo, seeds sprout and insight grows.
My entire life I had held onto implicit beliefs, that I was GOING somewhere. That arrival would be obvious and inevitable. That hard work and effort finally pays-off in some ultimate culminating moment… when fate delivers your grand prize. This vague belief is where I banked all of my meaning. Anticipation was the wind in my sails.
“We humans seem to have an intense desire for things to be different than they are. Our ability to identify errors and envision new possibilities gives us prosperity. But these abilities also seem to get us into self-defeating quandaries that no other animal faces.”
How absurd then, to begrudgingly consider, and eventually, concede, my “dreams” – the typical check-boxy American ones: success, wealth, marriage, family, things, pleasure – were not in fact utopia. Not only that, I could find no evidence of anyone in history having achieved wild and lasting satisfaction from these things.
I mean, holy f**k. A true record-scratch dead-silence moment, except a psychological one lasting many months. Meanwhile, unknowingly, some optimistic seeds were planted in my mind as a consequence of this – they just needed time to root.
The Myth of Sisyphus
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.”
– Albert Camus
A French existentialist philosopher named Albert Camus had traveled this road before, in 1942. Not only did he understand clearly that life is intrinsically meaningless, but acknowledged bluntly: this often results in confrontation with question of suicide. Why is life worth living? Not merely physical suicide, but even implicit philosophical suicide – giving-up one’s ability to see life for what is actually is, by adopting beliefs (religion or otherwise) that silence existential thoughts, or similarly, distract oneself from them.
Camus stuck a massive signpost in the ground with his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, making the following suggestion to humanity: a meaningless existence is great cause for celebration. We are freed from serious expectations. Embrace this.
I remember watching this exact video after reading his full essay, and it hit me in two phases. First – immediate relief that someone was being honest about meaninglessness. And second – a year or two later – appreciating what he meant – that this is actually an invitation to feel great relief, and create your own meaning and celebration.
“Although ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ poses mortal problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.”
– Albert Camus
Is Life “Serious”?
Serious actions are born from serious beliefs – even hidden ones. Rather than answer the question, “What is my purpose?” or “What is the meaning of life?”, Camus challenges the premise: why believe there is a purpose or point? Why place such enormous burden on ourselves, or on humanity broadly?
This framing can lead to enormous relief, but also creates a moment of extreme vulnerability or crisis. Stripped of purpose, why bother living? Cynicism, nihilism, misanthropy, and quite plausibly, suicide, can take hold here. This is precisely where Camus wants to catch us and place us back on a new path.
Life is NOT serious, in the cosmic sense. All that we know will pass – pleasures, friendships, things, experiences, humanity, the planet earth, and all of the stars in the universe. We had better not hold too tight, then. While at the same time, remain grateful for every moment we have these things – finding consolation that we are not a separate little person who is burdened with finding ultimate personal satisfaction – rather – we are interconnected with a vast orchestra of life that we can never possibly comprehend. It’s all just happening around and through us. Sit back. Observe. Flow. Take care of yourself and others.
Humility, awe, gratitude, and compassion, can be found here.
There are no further expectations that must be met.
We spend our initial decades filling our minds with expectations, and we are dimly aware this is happening. These expectations come from parents, culture, stories, and what we observe in everyday life, through some insidious osmosis. We judge ourself harshly against these expectations, I need X to be successful, I need Y to be happy, I dream of being the best Z in the world. It’s not that these dreams are necessarily bad, rather, that we take these dreams to be fate or destiny without ever questioning their origin or plausibility.
If we are very lucky, it finally dawns on us that these dreams are not preordained or even worthwhile. Many things we believe are essential for a happy and pleasurable life are very likely superfluous. A fantastic relief can sink-in here.
This is not grounds to totally discourage hard work and aspirations. Rather – it is to never forget, that essentially, we should take care of our basic survival, health, and each other. This alone is extraordinarily meaningful and purposeful. Lasting satisfaction can be found here, if only we scrupulously observe and question our motivations for anything more.
Finding *Your* Purpose
Given the above, the first and most challenging step is to drop all beliefs you’ve held about meaning and purpose. This takes a minute. Here is a starting place. Also consider this. See your desires in full daylight. Watch them. Be curious about them. Where did they come from, and are they actually helpful? Burn down the ones that aren’t. Then, at least for some period, find joy in the simplest life you can live – with zero expectations for more. Here is your new soil.
Well, ultimately, nothing more is necessary. Anything beyond is bonus. But as many of us have the privilege of free time we wish to spend wisely – here are two guiding questions:
First, do you deeply understand your own values?
Second, how does your behavior CONTRIBUTE to the fundamental wellbeing the world? Tattoo this question in your mind. As you reflect on each day, and consequently, how you wish to spend future days – how much will you be helping the world, as opposed to taking from it?
It appears as if several hundred years of human wisdom often leads to the same conclusion: that deep meaning can be found in supporting and sharing with others.
How specifically might this apply to you? In infinite ways. Whether it’s listening to a single friend or family member or coworker and supporting them, or, building your life and career around other people. The horizon is limitless and rich with possibilities.
While there are many ways to consider the question of meaning, this is undoubtedly the formula that makes most sense to me. First, excavate your mind of dreams that are unhelpful. Second, find joy in a simple life. Third, support and share with others.