How to Create (Not Find) the Meaning of Your Life

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven’t seen it) as follows: “People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general.” This strikes a chord with a notion I’ve held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that’s chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. … More on that in another post, perhaps.) I’m very happy that the statement got me musing, and I’d love to get feedback on my initial reaction.

I suspect that people often prefer contemplating “big picture, god-given meaning” because 1) it doesn’t require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important “big picture,” and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it’s pretty easy to come up with incidental “meaning” in any given event.

Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life “means something.” There isn’t inherent “meaning” in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very “meaningfulness” of a person’s life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they’re willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that’s yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn’t “meaningful” at all — it’s just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.

Now, am I saying that people who “just live their lives” without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a “meaningless” existence? No — at least, not if we’re treating the word “meaningless” as a synonym for “worthless,” which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it’s not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I’m simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn’t any such thing as “meaning.” Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have “meaning” if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?

It bothers me how many people treat the phrase “everything has a meaning” as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the “bigger plan” that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to “find meaning” in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is “justified” by its role in the “big picture” is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to … what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I’m not one who believes in the “end times,” so what in the world would a deity be “working toward”? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who’d come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn’t be consoled — I’d be furious. But hey, that’s just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who’d disagree. So, what do I know?

Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on “finding meaning” in tragedy, but on “creating meaning” out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who’s passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don’t interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved’s death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn’t doing something to honor someone who’s died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn’t that “meaning” enough?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.