Purpose & Meaning of Life

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… and no, its not “42”.  Reality, I’ve found, is somewhere between reaching for the stars and buried beneath the earth.  Where exactly is it?  Well, that is up to significant debate.  While some who know me recognize I tend to entertain philosophies of the grand scale, there is equally a tendency to be reductionistic in order to keep views balanced or grounded.  This is one such case….  I believe that the purpose of life is simply this:

to persist

Happiness is Illusory

Some say the purpose of life is happiness, to find their joy and live it.  It always seemed to me that this view is overly simplistic and filled with self-importance. What better way to rationalize choices that excuse selfish, irresponsible, or narcissistic behaviors?  Let’s justify our over inflated ego with the goal of happiness as life’s purpose, absolving ourselves of the consequences we leave behind.

The Greeks and Romans, who introduced us to Classical philosophy, had a very different definition of what Happiness actually means.  At its earliest use the word meant a life of good fortune, chance, or happening.  This use was fairly similar to translatable equivalences in most major societies  It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word began its association with pleasure and contentment, as well as a state of madness or mania. The notion that the meaning of life was chasing your happiness or joy really wasn’t feasible until the industrial age allowed for a new phenomenon – Leisure Time.

If we can manage to cast aside the I/Me narcissistic culture phenomena and strip away the excuses or justifications of our life choices, then what is left?   What if we were to stand naked before the world – without our biases and entrapments of the human condition, or the artificial ego-centric psycho-emotional frameworks?  What is left is the purely biological mechanisms and the chill of organic mathematics.

Step away from ourselves, from the humanness, and what is the underlying common factor…?

Life is a Numbers Game

Consider the diversity of life. It is estimated that there are about 8.7 million species of life on Earth (6.5M on land, 2.3M in oceans).   Life in all its glory and diversity obeys certain common laws of behavior, at least when looking at the gestalt of things. Life on Earth exists largely to persist; to pass along fundamentals of life and to adapt to changes accordingly.  These are all built of a distinct number of factors – RNA, DNA, Proteins, etc.  DNA is the message of the pattern for a form of life, while RNA is the messenger. Put another way, one can say that RNA is the precursor to life, while DNA exists because of life and so that it may continue.

Consider that the human genome carries approximately 3 billion base pairs grouped into 23 chromosomes.  The exact number for the volume of traditional data storage this translates into can vary widely depending on method of calculation. However, the typical range given goes from 715MB if indexing only base pairs [Reid J. Robinson MD @ Medium.com] to approximately 200GB if based on a next generation genomic sequencer FASTQ output.  Note that this is for the DNA code itself and does not consider RNA, which is required to transcribe DNA.

If we were to consider how much information is stored within a human being one estimate states that our bodies hold approximately 150 Zettabytes (10^21) of data, which is largely there to support the transmission. That’s a considerable amount of overhead if you just thing of it from a data carrier perspective.  But when you consider that the entire package is there to persist despite all the uncontrollable factors in the universe, and here on earth, you can see how any other means wouldn’t be able to survive and thrive despite the chaos.

It is for the sake of our DNA that we live, acting as the carrier and delivery device for the information.  Humans are then, when looked at from a very technical perspective, an organic network for information transmission.

Perspective

As an existentialist at heart, I actually take comfort in this.  It’s not about Happiness, or some contrived and self-deluding grand sense of Purpose. Life is, simply put, about persisting. The notion of life being about happiness has been largely a burst bubble with numerous psychologists, behaviorists, and philosophers trying to show how happiness is illusive, ephemeral, and ultimately leads to a prolonged state of dissatisfaction.  Happiness is by its nature impermanent, and expecting such is a path to disappointment and disillusionment (or for the less rational perhaps a permanent state of delusion).

You can however appreciate a sense of Contentment in life while you struggle to persist.  Meaning the battle to survive never goes away – it is always an ebb and flow rather than some point to cross or achievement to reach.  However, in the daily choices there are experiences and elements of life that bring us contentment.  By eschewing the illusion of happiness, and subsequent rainbow chasing, we come back down to having to face the choices before us.  Choices which we CAN make.  These choices can favor things that brings Peace, such as distancing ourselves from toxic personalities where possible.  Choices which brings us Connection, such as spending time with those that we are comfortable with or share interests.  Choices which close the door to Chaos and preserves our priorities, integrity, and most core values.  Choices which uphold the best of ourselves and those we care about.

Why then, when we have the power to make choices and improve our overall wellbeing, would we elect to engage in other meanings?

Choice & Accountability

The root of an existentialist philosophy or approach is the view that life presents us with so much chaos, things well beyond our control, that life can be appear meaningless or simply absurd.  When we try to insist our will upon the world, it is first up to us, individually, to define our own meaning in life and then to live it authentically.  This means that You and you alone are responsible for how you shape and conduct your life, knowing full well how much is outside of your influence or control.

That can be quite an uncomfortable if not bleak feeling, one that can lead you down a dark mental path of despair.  The key to overcoming this despair is to embrace, even if uncomfortably, a few key illusion shattering ideas using some Radical Acceptance:

  • Life is often absurd, chaotic, with no inherent “fairness” to it
  • There is always a Choice, even if there’s not a clear option of good or better
  • While our emotions about any situation are real, they are not Reality itself

On one hand we hold all the cards through realizing there is always a choice we can make.  On the other hand, there is so much beyond our influence and control.  Ultimately we can be “caught” in the state of anxiety or angst over what choice we should make.

When faced with no good clear choice we often experience despair as we feel trapped or feel that we cannot win. When faced with too many choices, we often feel paralyzed by indecision and feel overwhelmed.  In either of these situations, humans look to others to decide for us, to lead us, to resolve the discomfort of having to face the situation ourselves.  These experiences are our emotions, and while true for us as a personal perception, “feelings are not necessarily Fact.  Rather consider that our feelings are the language of emotions, and emotions reveal our expectations or needs as “personal truths” which are vaguer, such as vulnerability, isolation, contentment, joy, etc.

Realize that focusing on “happiness” is a way to distract ourselves from this apparent dilemma and taking personal action through our choices.  Essentially, that the focus on Happiness is in direct opposition to Empowerment.

Why focus on the choices we need to make when it all seems so pointless and confusing?  Instead of dwelling in dread, anxiousness or despair, let us instead seek the pleasures which makes us feel better. Let’s inundate ourselves with short-term immediate rewards like sugar to the chimp with the shiny and glossy things of our culture.  So we drown ourselves in vapid pop songs, glitzy tech toys, and the shine and sparkle of entertainment engine with its manufactured drama of sports, “reality” television, and inflammatory politics (news isn’t news, it’s a form of preoccupying entertainment folks – wake up folks).

Better that then being depressed, right??

Perhaps, until you realize that all these things are designed as exactly what they are – a drug to numb you and avoid making the choices you actually need to make to build your mental independence.  It’s all just “bread and circuses”: a diet of entertainment or political showmanship on which the masses are fed to keep them happy and docile, or distracted and divisive.  After all, the worst nightmare of any state’s power holder is that of a unified and focused populace…

When we have been distracted and divided, we go along for the ride and accept the momentum and direction of things – even if they work against us.  Think not?  In the 1968 social experiment published by Bibb Latane and John M. Darley called “Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies” (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 10(3), 215–221) there was a dramatic change in personal action when in a group versus being alone. This has been borne out as social influence, group indecision, and even “peer pressure”. Humans are social creatures and put more importance on a group behavior and decision trends than being independent.

If the world is unfairly stacked against us, or at least just absurd and chaotic, then we must learn to accept it as such.  After all, if we cannot acknowledge and accept something how can we possibly even begin to address it.  We cannot change the situation or adapt if we deny or are blind to its existence.  Once we accept this we have the ability to make our own choices, and any choice you make is exercising your Freedom.  All choices matter – including your choice to ignore or acknowledge the choices before you. It’s your choice to elect a particular option, even if none are any worse or any better. It’s also your choice to be passive and let “life” do it for you by circumstances unfolding.   Or, as in the words of the Canadian progressive rock band Rush …

You can choose a ready guide

In some celestial voice

If you choose not to decide

You still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears

And kindness that can kill

I will choose a path that’s clear

I will choose free will.

“Free Will” – Rush

When we learn to view all avenues as a matter of choice we invoke our freedom through the notion of free will.   I personally find that the path out of despair is accepting that life CAN be meaningless, but the act of making a conscious choice is what gives your life meaning.

To Persist Requires Fight

The very characteristic that can often define natural law is that of struggle between competing interests, forces, or phenomena.  Sometimes that struggle is against opposites for survival, such as that between predator and prey, where it’s zero-sum game with a clear winner and loser.  This is pretty easy for most to grasp, but there are other examples.

For example, there is the struggle that establishes social systems such as the competition for resources (be that material, emotional, time, etc).  Or more tangible dynamics between physical forces found in the physics of movement such as mass, inertia, force, velocity, gravity, friction, and the like.

Consider also the struggle between systems of order and chaos, such as the energy or effort required to hold off the effects of entropy, disorder, etc.  There is also the struggle at the quantum levels between the Known and the Unknown, or perhaps more accurately, between the dynamics of uncertainty and probability.

To persist in the struggle is the nature of the Fight. We engage in a dynamic that states there are winners and losers. Sometimes we get so caught up in this generalized assumption we turn all interactions into a competitive zero-sum game.  It’s not hard to understand why, it’s a very primal response to fairly primitive wiring favoring survival through resources, mates, etc.

But, for whatever reason there may be, sometimes the fight is just no longer an option.

Losing the Will to Fight

There are times when one simply “burns out” from the constant struggle.  There’s no one reason why other than running out of whatever resources you had, be they psycho-emotional, financial, legal, etc.  You can see this in those who have had difficult childhoods or teen years and how crushing the weight is of never knowing anything other than immense struggle.

There are those who endure long and vicious divorce or custody battles, a fight which has significant biases to overcome and is largely a game of attrition; a money game where only the lawyers truly win and all other parties suffer in turn.  Of equal consideration are those that face life-and-death struggles in their attempts to keep the peace, enforce the law, heal the sick and injured, and strive to serve a greater good while bad seeds and a bitter public turn their backs while others see them as targets.

For all of these reasons and many more, sometimes the will to fight is lost. All that is left is absolute exhaustion, underlying despair, and a sense of futility in it all.

Questioning the Need to Fight

It’s natural to question things when one’s efforts are for naught.  No one likes to feel powerless, impotent, or insignificant. It’s also very natural when those have lost so much and fought for so long to find a way to “be okay” with the exhaustion and burn-out.  Sometimes that is found by seeking comfort in belief systems that focus on passivity, on waiting for good things to happen so that the hand of Fate (Universe, God, etc.) to gift you reprieve or good fortune.

There is a saying that “we each are fighting a battle the other knows nothing about”. While profoundly truthful, is often misattributed by many and seems to have a wide degree of variation [see the following for the orgins of this expression at http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/29/be-kind/ ]. Once again, I will cite lyrics by Rush for another example:

You can fight

without ever winning

But never ever win

without a fight

“Resist” – Rush

Purpose

If one can face and accept a realization where life is often chaotic, absurd, unfair, and disappointing, then perhaps we can get on to also accepting that control is often illusory.  Other than what is readily within our grasp, very little is actually in any measure of control even in light of our attempts to influence otherwise.  The easiest way to assert control in life and shape our meaning is to therefore exercise our ability to make Choices.  Moreover, to make mindful choices which in alignment with our deepest core principles and values.

While likely to improve our situation, the result is less meaningful than the exercise itself – for we define our Selfness through our choices. It’s not just what we value, what we say, but the actions we take. Do our choices work towards our principles, or against them?

We are all empowered to give our life meaning and purpose through our Choices.  Even though life is hard, fraught with challenge, change, disappointment, and tragedy – the best we can do is choose to be an active participant of life. We can do this by choosing to keep going, to “keep on keeping on”.  We give our lives purpose and meaning when choose to get up in the morning, to choose to work and pay our bills, choose our friends and partners that bring out the best in us.  We deepen our purpose when we forgo the distractions, the divisiveness, and the toxic elements which undermine and poisons us.

In doing this we can shape our lives in the image more aligned to our core being, and thus honor our authentic selves and the principles we hold dear.  To persist is to take back your ability to make choices, eschew the focus of happiness and instead seek empowerment and contentment.

 

-SV-

 

 

Reference:

Happy:  Late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous;” of events “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + -y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Ousted Old English eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s. Old English bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.”   http://www.dictionary.com/browse/happy