The Answer to the Meaning of Life is… Multiple Choice!
Reality. This crazy little thing called existence. What is it? Most likely, Lilly Tomlin gave the best celebrity answer in her one-woman show. She described it as little more than a collective hunch. Of course, she also described reality as a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs, and a leading cause of stress. And here I thought it was something complicated. Start with a collective hunch, throw in some drugs, and add a dash of stress. I got it! Reality is college life in the 1970s!
For the sake of this discussion, it is not important whether or not we fully comprehend or even agree upon the scientifically approved definition of reality. The mechanics of reality, quantum or otherwise, are immaterial. What is paramount is the meaning and perspective we freely give to reality. From a purely existentialist point of view, reality is an indestructible freedom – a freedom of choice. You are free to choose your attitude, perspective and the meaning of your life’s situations, challenges and relationships. The entire content of your life is completely predicated upon the imbued meaning you freely chose to give it. It is a daunting task; so much is riding on your choice. A choice most of us are not even aware we are making, much less have so much invested in.
The definitive expert on the meaning of life is Victor Frankl, author of the classic, Man’s Search For Meaning. In his book, Frankl even goes so far as to say that choosing the meaning of reality is a pre-requisite for good mental health. He states that therapy and living an “examined” life can help us grow beyond our baggage and inner wounds. However, without choosing life-sustaining meanings, our minds will never heal or be completely whole. Great! More pressure. Now if you make a foolish choice you put your relationship with quality mental health in a precarious position. I guess that explains why so many of us have “issues.”
Three existential philosophers from Texas, ZZ Top, ask the practical question, “How could anyone be so unkind as to arrest a man for driving while blind?” Their subtle point is to consider how much of the time you are even consciously aware of the navigating choices you make that drive your life. How deliberately conscious are you of the meaning you attribute to the events of your life, or even of the world in which you live? I suspect that most of us are so distracted and caught up in the movement of our everyday existence that taking the time to choose the meaning of our life’s lessons as they unfold and present themselves simply gets overlooked.
So what choices are worth making and what choices are not worth making? After all, if the quality of our human growth and our perceived value, power and worth are a direct by-product of the meaning we freely choose, then the prime objective of a successful life would be to consciously make wise choices.
First let’s consider what happens if we decide not to make a choice – that is a choice that is not worth making by the way. How many times do you see senseless acts of violence on the news or witness an insensitive act by someone? The usual thought response is, “I could have lived without this inconvenient occurrence in my life.” When we fail to harvest meaning from the events in life, we plant the seeds of being powerless, a victim, worthless, miserable and unhappy. Meaning provides the distinctly human ability to cultivate depth of character and gives us access to the strength to grow beyond any limitation.
To illustrate this, a man came to Frankl completely distraught by the death of his wife. She had died a few years earlier, but the man just could not get over her death. Frankl asked the man what would have happened if he had died first instead of his wife. The man answered that his wife would be struggling to move forward, as he was now. Frankl suggested the meaning behind the man’s suffering was that he was going through it so his wife did not have to. The man then responded, “Okay. Now I can move forward knowing I am doing this for her.” Nothing in the man’s life actually changed, except he now had a meaning for his suffering, which made it bearable and provided him with a means to evolve beyond the stagnation of grief.
There are an incalculable number of things in life that we cannot control or change. Without applying meaning, we have the accumulation of pain and suffering without a means of transcending it. If no attempt is made to find meaning, then what we have in fact chosen is an absence of meaning in our personal experience of reality. Welcome to the void. Whenever we create a “quality meaning” vacuum in life, the emotional and psychological aspects of our existence start to erode and diminish. Ultimately this will affect the physical. As Frankl points out, the ability to choose meaning in our lives is what makes us distinctly and uniquely human. So whether we derive life-enhancing meaning, or suffer from a lack thereof, our choice is going to affect every aspect of our reality.
Nature does not like a vacuum. When we fail to bring a transcendent meaning to our lives, whatever stimulus we are exposed to moves in and defines our internal understanding and knowing of ourselves. The risk is that without actively participating in the search for meaning, the “know thyself” quest becomes a shallow, unsatisfying excursion.
Frankl based his theory of the critical nature of the search for meaning on his real life experience as a holocaust survivor. But what most interested me in this search is this: within the framework of personal and individual freedom to create meaning, are there some universal choices that would bring liberating results no matter what the underlining circumstances might be? If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one, employment layoff, divorce, foreclosure, medical complications, bad hair day or all of the above, is there a choice you could make, a default, which would bring life-enhancing meaning to your experience unconditionally? And if so, what exactly is that meaning choice? We always ask why bad things happen to good people, but what I’m asking is what do good people choose when bad things happen?
Although not on the scale that Frankl went through in a Nazi concentration camp, I found myself searching for meaning amid the grief and sadness following four deaths within the span of two weeks. Two were violent and traumatic deaths; two involved watching the final suffering of loved ones as they crossed over. I wanted to choose a meaningful way of growing beyond the shock and unhappiness. I wanted to choose a deliberate and conscious method of life operation. What could I choose to bring alive and nurture an intelligence that would counterbalance the outflow of life that had just occurred? Is there a meaningful choice I could make that would cover this deep and widening gap, providing a stable supportive path for moving forward through the tragedies and ugliness that find their way to this planet?
I needed to know where the truth that sets one free could be found. So I started in the most fundamental area of life ~ relationships. I wanted to search for meaning in the human contact I encountered, with every person, no matter how brief. These passings had awakened the realization that tomorrow is promised to no one, and that with each interaction we have with our fellow human beings, any one of them could be our last. I wanted to choose to connect with everyone I encountered with the essence of the old Christian adage, “love thy neighbor.” I wanted to know if this, the greatest of all Spiritual Laws, was a choice that would bring meaning to my life, ubiquitously, no matter what the source of limitation might be. If I died unexpectedly, and the last person I spoke to was a hi-tech customer service rep in India, I wanted to choose that even as transient as that contact might be, not counting my time on hold, I was going to speak to this person with the same integrity, patience and understanding that I would to the most important person in my life. That was the meaning of reality I chose to bring to that exchange. I found that honestly thanking them for being of service brought a profoundly comforting meaning to my life. I also tried to make them laugh if I could.
Interjecting a quality of basic human kindness into all relationships I encountered was the meaning I choose to see in the loss I could not change in my own life. My choice, love, considered to be the highest ethical, philosophical teaching, and laughter, did in fact bring a life-liberating meaning regardless of the source of the suffering. The old Christian adage “love thy neighbor” worked! It worked to provide that universal, one size fits all meaning. I could apply it anywhere and everywhere in my life, and it brought a transforming power that gave my life a richness of meaning and purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, I still cried and grieved for those loved ones who died. Emotionally digesting these events still manifested to its fullest extent and intensity. Finding meaning did not give me a vacation from being human; it is not a reprieve from working through challenging emotions. It did not change the details of the exterior world. However, infusing this search and alignment with meaning made it a journey I could endure with grace and dignity. A quality of self-realized development strengthened my understanding of what is truly valuable and important in life and what it means to be fully human.
The extent of my wisdom is this: meaning is chosen by your free will. It is not inherent. There is no “meaning instruction tag” sewn into the fabric of life. Finding a meaning choice is not based on how much money you have or don’t have. It is not determined by what education you have or have not completed. It has nothing to do with politics, religion or sexual orientation. It is an internal action that is applied externally through the exercise of free will.
So much of the suffering on this planet is intrinsic to the human experience itself. Regardless of what your life is yielding, you are not alone. Many others on this rock know what it is like to share your pain. If the “love thy neighbor” choice achieved such a deep-seated across the board deliverance quality of meaning for me, I suspect there is boundless value in it for you as well. After all, my suffering and your suffering do not exist in a vacuum. We are all connected.
When I choose to interact from a core of love, I can see the Divine in all, and it endows my life with a pristinely elegant, expansive, tangible sense of meaning. The best part of all, I have yet to find a downside to relating to others from an authentic inner place of tolerance and compassion. And most importantly remember, when a customer service rep asks you if there is anything else they can do, always answer with, “How about a life without suffering and a body without cellulite?” And when you find one… call me day or night!