10 Jan

What if Life is Meaningless?

An acquaintance asked me about life, and more specifically how to handle that life is inherently meaningless.

Well, I said, “Meaning” is what you make it.

Since we (as a species) have the ability to change our reality based on how we think about it*, we can create our own world to some extent.

* Look at getting jumped by your best friend in a Freddy Kruger mask, the emotions are: terror -> realization -> relief, all based on your understanding of the situation and how you think about it.

There’s a famous quote in Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir “Man’s Search For Meaning,” the one that became the foundation for Logotherapy (the precursor of CBT), where he describes two concentration camp inmates talking about a guard (and I paraphrase because I can’t find the book right now):

One says “I used to know that man when he was a bank manager.” and the other replies “Amazing how high he’s risen.”

In their situation, being a concentration camp guard was something that was so much above them, that they couldn’t fathom it – but it was entirely subjective. The position of guard hadn’t changed, their interpretation of it had.

What does that mean for us?

It means that we can, by the way we structure our thoughts, shift our perception of the world. We can create meaning in it.

This is what people do when they “find God.” This is what people do when they “discover their calling.” This is what people do when they realize that they’d “die for their children.” They assign an (admittedly arbitrary) meaning to their situation.

And that’s the beauty of it, the meaning is completely arbitrary and it doesn’t matter.

We don’t get a meaning handed down to us. We don’t get a world view handed down to us. We are complicit in creating it, and we create it through our interests, our thoughts, and our actions.

So how to handle a life where meaning isn’t assigned?

Try things others find meaningful. At first, they likely won’t be to you. But as you habituate to them, as they lose their strangeness and become second nature, you will fill them with meaning.

This, BTW, is the way that “passion” is created. Not by finding it, but by doing something, learning more about it, engaging with it. Nobody becomes a raving football fan the first time they hear about the game. They become fans by repeatedly watching it, learning about it, playing it, talking about it, and, above all, engaging with others who are fans.

They grow into their tribe, and get their meaning from it.

See, meaning and self-image go hand-in-hand. The way you view yourself determines what you find meaningful in life, and what you find meaningful in life determines how you view yourself. You would be hard-pressed to have one without the other.

Again, this is great news! It means that you can change yourself, and do it both by working on what you find meaningful, and by thinking about who you are.

And once you do, you’ll start to see that there’s plenty of meaning in life. All you need to do is create it.

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