Of people and insights that help us make sense of it all.
Some of life’s biggest questions revolve around meaning and purpose. These are questions that have been around for as long as people have been able to articulate them.
Given the motley group – thinkers, seekers, theologians, scientists and others – that has tried to tackle these questions, a few different philosophies have sprung up around them. Some are based on secular ideas while others assume there is some form of divine design behind the universe. But whatever the underlying ideology, most attempt to crack a few basic existential puzzles, including: Why are we here? And how can we make the most of it?
Depending on which theory we apply, the answers can range from the unsentimental to the more idealistic. For example, the basic Darwinian view is that we are here simply because of our genetic ability to adapt. Humanists, on the other hand, believe in every individual’s unique purpose and agency.
But most of us are not really in a position to decipher weighty philosophy or esoteric religious texts. We need lighter fare to help us make sense of it all.
Luckily, there are many examples of such wisdom around us.
Insights from those who have seen the light following certain life altering experiences, are especially valuable. These personal a-ha moments, if cogently presented, may not be in the same league as the Buddha’s awakening under a Bodhi tree but are easier to wrap our heads around.
In his book titled “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl gives a vivid account of his time as a prisoner in an Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Frankl’s primary conclusion based on this ordeal is that a person can find meaning even under the most difficult conditions. “He who has a why to live for”, he writes “can bear almost any how.”
He offers his own response to imprisonment as proof of this theory. Despite the inhumanity he endured at the camp, Frankl did not despair. Instead he managed to stay positive and focused, fully embracing his role of physician to other ailing inmates. So committed was he to this purpose that, at one point, he sacrificed a chance to escape in order to stay back and fulfill it.
Among the inspiring words that Frankl presents in the book are these: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Andy Puddicombe, the founder of meditation app Headspace, is another person who has been able to take his own quest for meaning in the Himalayas and weave it into a solution that makes a traditional practice more accessible to the average seeker. The app guides users through finite mindfulness sessions punctuated with soothing prompts by Puddicombe himself.
Puddicombe’s journey into monkhood and back makes him a credible guide for those new to meditation. His app-based sessions – with their non-preachy voiceovers, cheery colors and lively visuals – are easy to absorb. Where retreating into a cave to find oneself is not an option, Headspace offers a variant; an easy-to-use tool for – in Puddicombe’s own words – “training in awareness and understanding how and why you think and feel the way you do.”
If life experiences and personal immersion are among the most reliable sources of knowledge in this area, then painstaking research is a close third. Take the work of Washington DC-based author Emily Esfahani Smith who has drawn extensively from psychology, philosophy and literature as well as her own observations of and conversations with people around the world in order to get a more complete picture of the human experience. Her conclusions are presented in a book: The Power of Meaning. Esfahani Smith argues that when we obsess over finding happiness, we ignore all the many ways that we can uncover meaning. Apart from the book, she also has a widely shared TED talk titled: “There’s more to life than being happy”.
What distinguishes people like Frankl, Puddicombe and Esfahani Smith is their ability to package their insights in forms that people can easily digest – as stories, simple instructions and stirring talks. Their ideas give us perspective to examine the bigger picture and what really counts in it.
The special characteristic of these larger life questions is that the answers can be as complex or as simple as we like.
For although it’s hard to argue with Aristotle when he says:
“…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these…” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13)
It may be easier to relate to other views on this topic, such as writer Kurt Vonnegut’s:
“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
Alterpoint is a column that appears in Viewpoint, a quarterly published by The PRactice. It looks at connections between life and the arts.