The Meaning of Life Is to Give Life Meaning
Feeling hollow? Existential philosophy is here to help.
Perhaps, existential crisis is an inevitable part of the human condition.
Anyone reflective enough to spare a minute or two to question their existence and their reason for being; will begin to crave a sense of longing for a meaningful life — and the inability to fulfill this longing then causes a downward spiral of rumination.
Does that description resonate with you? Have you ever asked yourself:
- Why do I exist?
- What am I living for?
- What do I want to do?
- How should I spend this finite time?
It’s perfectly fine to not know the answers to these questions. However, approaching them from a wrong perspective may worsen your existential dread.
As it turns out, the cure to this perplexity is none other than meaning.
In this writing, we’ll explore how we can use existential philosophy to gain more clarity on the meaning of life. We’ll start with a simple premise:
The meaning of life is not something we find, but give.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Let’s begin with a brief history.
Many historians regard Søren Kierkegaard as the father of existential philosophy. Though the Danish philosopher never used the term explicitly, he was the first to put the building blocks of existentialism, by emphasizing the individual’s responsibility to give his life meaning and to live “authentically.”
Expanding on this idea, the person who’s credited for popularising existentialism is the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre, who was active during the WWII period. The philosophical school rose to prominence following the war, and the reason for this rising is painfully clear:
In a world where so much chaos, destruction, and death is a reality — not only a possibility; do we have a plausible reason to continue living?
Imagine that: the same question that bugs us in the comfort of our homes, used to be asked amid explosions and gunfire. During that period, existential dread is not merely a personal dilemma, but a Zeitgeist.
Fortunately, just like the legend of Pandora’s box, a tiny shred of hope still shimmers gently among all the chaos. Some people found this hope, held on to it, and made it through the trying times.
One such person is psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning. This book is an immensely insightful read, and one of the most intriguing ideas that I’ve learned from it is probably this:
Strangely enough, within the hellish atmosphere of Nazi concentration camps, the number one cause of death is not torture, overwork, or sickness — it’s suicide.
Through this phenomenon, we can clearly observe the gravity of meaning. Without it, human beings immediately lose their will to live, so much so it can even cause systemic self-inflicted deaths.
Chances are, if you feel that your life is purposeless and empty, then this is where you’ll find the root of your problem: a lack of meaning.
On the flip side, the presence of meaning can give us a powerful driving force to live — rendering us capable to withstand any suffering. Frankl’s survival story is one proof of this.
He noticed the potential, and used his experience to devise logo-therapy: a method of psychotherapy centered on the usage of meaning. While he is not commonly thought of as a philosopher, Frankl’s works resemble those of Kierkegaard and Sartre.
Now that we’ve learned the importance of meaning, let’s dive deeper into this complex matter of existence.
Existence Precedes Essence
Life is inherently meaningless.
However, just because life does not possess meaning from the get-go, doesn’t mean it will always stay that way. Here’s where the tenet of existentialism comes in, as summarised by Sartre —
Existence precedes essence.
Essence is the fundamental characteristic of an object that makes it what it is. A knife is a knife because it has a blade. It doesn’t matter if the handle is made of wood or steel, as long as it has a sharp edge that can be used to slice things —after all, we make knives for the sole function of slicing.
Living beings are not so simple. We are born without any predetermined function. It is after we observe and interact with the world that we will decide what that function is. To sing, to write, to construct, to destroy; it’s entirely our decision.
Despite the shackles of society, culture, law, even religion; at the end of the day, it is we who decide what we do.
Us humans, we are condemned to be free.
Existentialists believe that only the owner of this freedom should give it meaning. Letting others do it for them, Sartre points out, is called “bad faith;” a condition where someone takes on values imposed by others, effectively disowning their innate freedom — this condition is the opposite of what Kierkegaard calls living “authentically.”
To live authentically is to live according to our own beliefs and desires, regardless of external pressure. It’s about taking responsibility for our freedom and therefore our reason for being.
Choosing to do otherwise, would be absurd.
An Absurd World
Absurdity is another prevalent concept in existentialism, and existentialists define it as —
“The search for answers in an answerless world.”
Mankind is an utterly free being forsaken in a realm of no absolutes. We crave meaning, yet we are thrown into a world devoid of it. As the world does not possess answers, our search is therefore never-ending.
These answers are something we must create ourselves. After all, we are free to do so — and this freedom overwhelms us. This fear in the face of freedom is another existentialist concept called “anguish.”
When imbued with anguish, our foremost instinct is to look for external sources of answers and meaning. Our parents, bosses, governments — we turn towards any figure with authority, which we believe has more answers than us.
However, this act is futile, as these authority figures are just as clueless as us, if not more. It’s an answerless world. To not have any answers is the norm.
Sounds despondent? It might seem so at first, but there’s always a ray of hope.
Let’s set the philosophy aside for a bit, and learn from video games instead.
The Assassin’s Creed
Have you ever played any of the Assassin’s Creed games?
This series of popular action games sets itself apart from the crowd by presenting a deeply thought out storytelling (among other reasons), which draws inspiration from real-world history and philosophy, providing lessons applicable in our day-to-day life.
Uniquely, the titular creed of the Assassin’s Brotherhood is reminiscent of existentialism, and other cognate philosophies.
The creed goes like this: Nothing is true, everything is permitted.
At first glance, this creed may seem blatantly nihilistic (by stating that “nothing is true,”) and hedonistic ( — and “everything is permitted”).
In the latter parts of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the protagonist Ezio Auditore mentions this creed to his lover Sofia Sartor, to which she replied by saying, “That is rather cynical.”
Ezio explained as follows:
“It would be if it were doctrine. But it is merely an observation of the nature of reality. To say that nothing is true is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile and that we must be the shepherds of our civilization. To say that everything is permitted is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic.”
In this explanation, we can see many parallels with the ideas of existential philosophers like Kierkegaard or Sartre.
- Nothing is true: The world is absurd, and it provides us no answers — therefore we must strive to devise our own answers and make sense of this absurd world.
- Everything is permitted: Mankind is free, and this burden of freedom comes with immense responsibility. While we have a choice to do anything as long as our circumstance allows it, we must accept whatever consequences come with our actions.
That’s the gist of it. Have you found the clarity you’re looking for?
We’ll gather our findings in the next part.
Humankind is a species that thrives on meaning.
Without it, we wither; and with it, we blossom.
However, life is inherently meaningless, and the world is absurd — at least according to existentialism. This condition condemns us to be free, and this freedom is a responsibility.
Some people try to abandon this responsibility and seek meaning from external sources. This fallacy, which Sartre defines as “bad faith,” only creates more problems. By blindly following others, who is just as clueless and confused as us, we are not doing ourselves any favor.
If your life feels lackluster and your chest feels hollow, this frivolous behavior is likely the root cause.
As Kierkegaard expressed, it is our individual calling to give our lives meaning. After all, we are the only ones who can. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to live according to our innate beliefs and desires — to live “authentically.”
Remember 2019 Joker’s iconic pun? “I hope my death makes more cents than my life.” — that’s what you get when you abandon your freedom by aimlessly following others and not living authentically: Your life makes no sense.
True or false, permitted or forbidden; the values of this world are all volatile. What matters most is that we take ownership of our decisions and bear any consequences that come with them. A simple law of causality, or karma, if you will. What goes around comes back around.
Some people look at existentialism with one eye closed. They say that this philosophy rejects order and absolute truth, making it anarchistic or even atheistic.
Well, after all we have discussed in this writing, I beg to differ.
To me, existentialism is an immense source of relief. It puts our fate entirely in our hands, which I think is the best moral compass there is. Kind or cruel, worthwhile or vain, fun or boring — your life is what you make of it.
It’s just as Frankl wrote —
“The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
This article was originally published in The Apeiron Blog on 23 June 2020.