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A Meaningful Life – October 2014


Can life be meaningful without contributing to something eternal, i.e., without either subject or objective immortality?
Publication Month:
October 2014

My short answer is Yes. But of course that is also to be qualified by many Nos.

How Yes? Surely in an important sense the life of a young child is “meaningful.” “Meaning” is found in the enjoyment of the moment, the parent’s approval, the experience of something new. In the broader sense, there is also meaning, negative meaning, in the suffering of the moment, the parent’s disapproval, and boredom. Meaning in this sense persists throughout life, almost any life. We all find satisfaction in enjoyment, approval, and the excitement of novelty.

But what is often meant in reflective discussions of “meaningfulness” is something different. It arises when one notices how fleeting these satisfactions and disappointments are and wonders whether that is all that life offers. Even physical pleasure or the adulation of multitudes can cease to satisfy. Even novel experiences may become boring. Is there a goal, beyond the immediate pleasure or pain, that can give meaning to life?

And, of course, there is, or can be. A child with some musical talent can be encouraged to aim to become a great musician. When this goal is internalized it gives great meaning to the child’s life. Or the child may read stories of great political leaders and aspire to become one. Many such personal goals are capable of giving meaning to life.

On the other hand, this pattern of meaning-giving can also collapse. Sometimes it collapses after the goal is achieved. One can find the achievement only temporarily satisfying. One may respond by setting a still higher goal. Typically those who succeed in becoming millionaires aspire to become multimillionaires, then billionaires. The achievement turns out to give less meaning than the pursuit of what has not been achieved.

Some are led by this experience to ask, again, the question of meaning. Many fail to achieve such goals and ask for another ground of meaning. Some see, much sooner, that the meaning found in pursuing such goals is ultimately self-destructive even for those who succeed.

When the question is asked again, the answer is likely to put the personal goal in a wider context. One of the problems is that simply seeking personal achievement cannot but raise the question of what does all that ultimately add up to. Death may come at any time and wipe it all away. Meaning is better grounded if the goal is put into a social context. One finds meaning in benefiting others. Of course, achieving the personal goal may then be given a deeper meaning. If the only purpose of becoming a great musician is personal satisfaction, it is likely to disappoint. But if one knows that one’s skill can bring enjoyment to others, then its meaning is more enduring. But there is a greater advantage if all along the way one is able to serve one’s neighbor and the larger community. Many, many people live deeply meaningful lives of service with little or no thought for any wider or deeper grounding. To say that anything more is necessary for meaning is wrong.

However, even some of these people, admirable as they are, do at times struggle with a sense of meaninglessness. For some, this may result, as with individuals, from success. One raises other people from poverty to the middle class and then observes that at a deeper level their lives seem little better. Or one finds that the gains for those one has helped have been costly to another group, or that changes at another level will wash away all that one has achieved. In one way or another, the myth of Sisyphus seems fitting. Endlessly pushing the rock to the top of the mountain only to have it roll down the other side does not provide the meaning one seeks. Or one may wonder, now that one has accomplished that, what next? Here, too, the meaning lay more in working for the goal than in its achievement. Perhaps even more often, one fails. Where then is the meaning?

Before I proceed to another level, let me say that, in spite of all the limitations and pitfalls I have mentioned, there are some people, perhaps quite a few, who find deep meaning in their lives of service and feel no need to probe further. For some the probing does rise to the surface when health or age makes the active life of service impossible. But some of them are able to adjust even to this by emphasizing that being gracious and appreciative to those who serve them is sufficient to give meaning to their lives. I hesitate to tell them that they need more.

Even so, even for these fortunate souls, and certainly for many others, the deeper question of meaning arises at least occasionally. This is the level at which the initial question takes on the form to which I incline to say No. In this I join much of the intellectual world of late modernity.

Of course, some of those who agree about the lack of ultimate meaning respond in profound ways. Consider Heidegger. He described human existence brilliantly, looking for what could make it meaningful. He clearly was not giving advice about setting goals and putting them in wider contexts. He assumed, with most existentialists, that this quest for meaning could not respond to the deepest need. For him, the answer lay in “authentic existence.” If one took full responsibility in each moment for what one became then and there, then one lived authentically. Heidegger does not put the issue in terms of meaningfulness. He might say that authentic existence requires the acceptance of meaninglessness. One might say, in Tillich’s terms, that we need “the courage to be” even when there is no reason to be.

We must take this line of response seriously. If there is no ultimate meaning, then what? It seems reasonable to answer that we must orient our lives to a different goal. Many a heart has been stirred by the call to live boldly without meaning. This gives a kind of “meaning” in a meaningless world. It presents itself as an advance over seeking to bolster meaningfulness by positing something metaphysical or supernatural.

Authentic existence transcends not only meaning but also morality. Its call is for a heroic personal strength. Some have worried about this from the beginning. When Heidegger embraced the Nazi movement strongly, some feared that their worries were justified. After the Nazis were destroyed, Heidegger seemed to write in a different, gentler vein. I was involved in organizing a conference on “the later Heidegger and theology.” Perhaps the later Heidegger offered fresh opportunities for his admirers to make connection. When his age and health prevented his attendance, we invited his most famous student, Hans Jonas, thinking he would expound Heidegger’s thought. Jonas chose the occasion to speak in a quite different vein.

Jonas was a Jew, and during the war he appealed to Heidegger to help save the life of his mother. He received no response, but he excused Heidegger knowing the cost of what he asked. After the war and the “turn” in Heidegger’s thought, he hoped for an apology or at least an expression of regret. None came. Finally he decided that Heidegger was indeed living according to his own philosophy and was thereby liberated from human concerns of this sort. He warned us as Christians not to follow in that path.

Obviously not all those who admire Heidegger and are influenced by him abandon ethical relationships. But I am persuaded that the price of abandoning the quest for meaning and formulating life’s goal in another way is very costly indeed. I agree with Jonas that this is not an acceptable answer.

The other still more impressive answer is to be found in Buddhism. Heidegger himself recognized an affinity with Zen. Something like what he called authentic existence can be found in Zen enlightenment. Zen also dismisses and rejects the quest for meaning. One may find meaning in the quest for enlightenment, but unless one abandons such a goal-oriented stance, one cannot experience enlightenment. The chief characteristic of enlightenment is called “wisdom.” This wisdom includes the understanding that things are as they are and makes no judgment.

There is, however, a difference, and it is this difference that makes the Buddhist alternative to meaningfulness attractive as Heidegger is not. The characteristics of enlightenment are “wisdom and compassion.” For authentic existence, compassion would be a weakness. For Zen it is built into the nature of enlightenment. This is because Heidegger understands people as externally related. He speaks of others in terms of “being-with.” Achieving full integrity does not involve them. For Zen, on the other hand, the momentary reality of the individual is a synthesis of everything else. The metaphysics is like that of Whitehead, developed two and a half millennia earlier. Thus full enlightenment is feeling the feelings of others, com-passion. The result is that the Buddha, the enlightened one, is ideally compassionate. In an important sense this removes all need for morality.

My Zen friends confess, however, that the emphasis on “wisdom” has been greater than the emphasis on “compassion.” Hence, Zen has also been criticized for its failure at the level of ethics, especially social ethics. Nevertheless, I do think that Buddhism offers in principle an ultimate alternative to the Western quest for meaning. Hence I need to restate my position. The quest for meaning ultimately collapses without some belief in immortality of the sort that Whitehead provides. Buddhism provides an alternative to that quest rather than an undergirding that, while costly, must be profoundly respected.

For my part, however, I believe that our world needs a deepening of meaning rather than its abandonment. Accordingly, I do not choose Buddhism. Whitehead provides what I see as most beneficial today.