Where the Heck Does Meaning Come From? | Pt. 1
** This will be a multi part post. The goal is to ultimately end up looking at a few philosophers’ ideas of meaning to see how they are actually applied to life. This first part will more or less be my own musings on this topic. **
What Do I Mean?
Suffering has largely determined my outlook on life. For years I’ve felt that I had to earn or struggle for the happiness that was given to me. When I was a child, I felt that I didn’t deserve much of what I had. I’ve had a guilty conscience for as long as I can remember. At times this was to my detriment. When you feel as though you deserve nothing, you sometimes act like a jerk to people who attempt to treat you right. As an adult, this perception has shifted towards a healthier direction. I realize that I derive my own worth by how much I help or hurt others. Though this is good for me have to come to realize, it does not solve the problem of meaning. I believe that meaning and worth are related, but still have separate components that should be analyzed.
I’m not entirely sure what the meaning of life is, but I think that where we find meaning in life does stem from what affects our sense of worth. This is related to our self-worth and the value we find in other people, actions, and occurrences. For myself, the feeling of satisfaction that I get from having to struggle and earn something feels linked the concept of justice. This being what is proportionately owed due to having done a particular action. I think this may also be related to a precept that I try to live by:
“I must do more good than harm. I want to help people more often than I hurt them.”
Though there is no way to live an authentic life without having made a mistake that hurts someone else, I still find great worth in trying to live by those words. At the moment, I can say that if I live a life in which I successfully help others more than I hurt them, then I live “a life worth living”. That is fine, but that does not seem to meet the idea of finding meaning in life. Is meaning in life simply derived by living in accord with what we deem to be worth living by? I would say that this is partially true. I also happen to find meaning in having good times with my friends. I find meaning in trying to speed run Halo Reach on Legendary with some buddies. Those two activities don’t necessarily operate within that earlier mentioned concept. Not every action of worth or meaning has to fit within an input/output type of formula, though some can and will. This is what causes me to wonder if what we derive meaning from is simply a product of multiple instances of conditioning in which we’ve learned to relate certain events with the feeling of being emotionally, physically, morally, spiritually, or mentally satisfied.
What Do You Mean?
If meaning is a byproduct of conditioning, then does being aware of the circumstances that led to that conditioning allow us to change where we find meaning? If so, then what would that process look like? What would that ultimately say about what meaning itself is? If we were able to constantly simulate the conditions that we find meaning in, would that equate to a meaningful existence? A good friend of fine posed this question. It makes me wonder if what we find meaning in even really matters. Perhaps we should be more concerned with the fact that we are able to feel that things have meaning.
One could use how many people react to their first introduction to nihilism as proof that where we get meaning from is deeply important. If there is ultimately no meaning in anything, then life isn’t worth meaning. Many times a person can slip into depression when they encounter this idea. I would image this to be because they believe this to be true on some level. Generally speaking, a healthier outcome is to realize that this makes one free to craft and derive meaning from anything. I see this as riding the line between needing to find meaning in something and needing to be aware of the significance of humans even being able to feel that things have meaning. Perhaps the sense of meaning is defined by life experiences. If that is the case then we can attempt to look at the most significant events in our lives and see how they locked us in to certain ways of relating to the world. I believe this type of investigation into ourselves can give us more freedom. If we understand the paths that lead us to a particular place, then we can decide whether or not we want to continue down said path. Maybe it would be futile to attempt to change these things, but, at the very least, we would have the freedom to try.
Meaning, Median, Mode
One thing that fascinates me is the idea of us having access to the data of our lives. Imagine if we were able to see the stats for all of the events in our lives. Image if we could specify. For example: we could look up how many times we were told “good job” and between what ages. With information like that I feel we would be able to find the patterns in our experiences that compose our individual paths to finding meaning. We would be able to see what things we just happen to find meaning in versus what we find meaning in based on how we grew up or what we’ve experienced. Maybe you find meaning in the color blue because of a blue stuffed animal your favorite aunt gave you as a kid.
The more I think about this, the more I think that meaning is just cause and effect made manifest in a way that causes us to want more of the desired effect. It then seems to me that meaning is like the favorite lullaby of a child. It’s heard to often that it is tied to so many feelings. Comfort, ease, safety, peace, love, kindness, all linked to this song. No matter how old that child becomes, those same feelings will arise when they hear that lullaby. The consistency of those feelings are what comprise the meaning of that lullaby.
This ends part one of this topic. I need to do more research on the psychological and physiological underpinnings of meaning because everything I said was pure speculation and opinion. I am curious to see what pathways neural pathways light up when we experience the sense of a meaningful action having been completed (or in the middle of that process). I also wonder if it is similar to pathways that light up when we satisfy addictive urges. There will be more to follow on this topic next weekend.
Thanks for reading!