Meaning. Purpose. Reason. A natural requisite of human existence is to seek an understanding of oneself, of one’s life, of one’s place within the universe. Fundamental to philosophy is questioning and the fundamental question of philosophy is, arguably, ‘why?’ For centuries philosophers have dealt with meaning and existence, and I do not attempt to challenge them. I simply offer my humble and human response to this most testing and ingrained of questions.
When confronted with this, it is easy for the rational mind to fall irretrievably into existential despair, concluding that all life and all actions in life are meaningless, that we essentially exist without purpose. As Dostoevsky writes in Crime and Punishment:
Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.
Macbeth, great in his philosophical insight and sensitivity, exhibits this potential for melancholy in his gradual descent into nihilism. Having just heard the news of his wife’s death, Macbeth grieves over what his life has become:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Macbeth reveals the nebulous void into which the rational being risks losing itself when faced with a true knowledge of his life’s meaning, or meaninglessness. It is a crippling burden that renders the bearer barren of warmth, emotion and, ironically, humanity.
To prevent this, the human mind often creates its own meaning, from the will of almighty creators, to the inevitable hand of fate to even the Calvinist prefigured afterlife; the list is inexhaustible. The intention here is to find security in the external in order to give meaning to the internal self and, therefore, one’s position in the world. I am not suggesting that all belief in the divine is wrong, rather I am simply arguing that we should not use the supernal as a means to evade this question. Macbeth’s issue is not his godlessness, or his distance from God because of his sinful transgressions; it is his inability to accept that his life may lack meaning.
Therefore, my response to this question is with another question: why do we still ask the question ‘why?’ Why do we search for worth outside of humanity when true meaning inheres within us? Instead of fixing our eyes permanently and painfully heavenwards, I propose that we turn our gaze first within, to ourselves, to the worth of humanity itself. It may not be possible to successfully purge ourselves of the desire to seek out meaning, and we would likely remove from our humanity if we could; however, we could still make an effort to come to terms with the fact that our lives may not have any external, higher meaning.
When we have accepted this, it soon becomes clear that, when considered from our simple, subjective perspective, human life is full of manifold wonders that can give it manifold human meanings. Here I will concentrate on the most basic form of human experience: human relationships. Beginning with friendships formed at a young age at school, developing into romantic relationships in late youth and early adulthood, to marriage, children and grandchildren, human love is manifest in all forms and all walks of life.
Inexplicable, uncontrollable and often unconditional, love reflects the very essence of existence. As with love, we can explain existence as much as we can control it, as much as we can explain it and as much as we can resist the conditions it comes with. Although a relationship or an emotion capable of lasting a lifetime is, by nature, finite – a lifetime is limited after all – we accept this. But instead of depressing us into fatalistic despair, we find meaning in the implicit knowledge – whether true or not – that such connections, bonds and feelings transcend mortal limitations, certainly mortal comprehension, and perhaps even mortal finality. Every form of bond between humans can give human meaning to human life. The infatuated lovers that stare in wonder into each other’s eyes understand their emotions as little as the father who would give everything for his young daughter. They nonetheless accept, if not embrace, this condition of their emotions.
I suggest we come to terms with our existence in a similar manner. If we can embrace the ineffability of human love, then so too can we embrace the similar condition of human existence, and if we can fill the nihilistic void with which Macbeth contends with the fullness of our relationships, with human love, then we have found our own meaning for ourselves. This is not a universal answer to this most deeply-rooted of philosophical questions. It is rather a humanist approach to the problem that finds purpose within us.
One of life’s greatest wonders is not knowing ‘why’. It may take years before our minds can lay our eyes down to rest from their permanent fixation with the stars, but when this happens, and we realise that some of life’s greatest mysteries can be unlocked from within humanity itself, then we have accomplished perhaps one of the most humbling and rewarding of human experiences. Life is brimming with fullness and purpose; we need not look far to find it.