Looking for Meaning Everywhere

Thoughts on our search for meaning

Jan 29, 2019

Life Meaning Psychology Existentialism
round white compass on a window sill

Photo by Jordan Madrid

My dad turned 73 this week. As a birthday gift, I sent him Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He’s a reader so I figured he’d enjoy this. It’s a haunting read, but hopeful. The book is Frankl’s memoir of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, where his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. The message he shares with his readers is that we can make meaning out of anything we go through in life, even unimaginable suffering. If anyone is qualified to make that statement, I’d say it’s someone who lived through what Frankl lived through.

Us humans are wired for meaning-making. We often look for meaning the way a stray dog looks for food — desperately, hungrily, looking everywhere and anywhere. To make meaning out of a seemingly meaningless task is such a Homo sapiens trait. I’m no scientist, but it seems we are the only species who try to make meaning out of things, beyond the functional or practical.

I’m always on the lookout for meaning — for divine coincidences, signs, serendipitous moments. I scavenge for meaning among words during conversations, on plane rides, in TV shows and movies, while reading, walking my dog, or grocery shopping. I figure there has to be meaning stuffed behind one of the cans in the canned vegetable aisle, or in the freezer in-between the pizza boxes. I expect to find it on stairwells leading to upper floors, in cab rides to and from places, or at least on my yoga mat.

But alas, it is in none of these, because meaning, ultimately, lies in our mind. It is something we project onto things, people, places, and experiences. It is of our own making. Yes, I believe in miracles and signs from above, and yes I think others can offer us meaning, but it is still something we attach significance to. Therein lies its power and its mystery.

And so, the past few years, I’ve attempted to give up my search for meaning. Well, let me rephrase — I’ve given up on the idea that it’s out there somewhere, waiting to be found, like a lost ship at sea. I now see it as something I can choose to create.

We each get to decide what meaning things in our life hold. And to that end, we each get to determine what it means to live a meaningful life. For some, it may be traveling the world, for others, raising children. What a gift this is — to be able to let go of the desperate search for something we may never find “out there” and that is not in our control, and to instead be invited to take responsibility for weaving a life that means something to us.

I can see how this can also be scary and daunting for most of us — the ultimate existential crisis. I know it can be for me. I’m often left asking myself, “What is the purpose of this?” How do I begin to create a life of meaning? What can I make of an ordinary day?

I think this is where we have to be careful not to “over-meaningfy” things, or in other words, try to attach meaning to everything. A sunset can have deep meaning for us one day (on the day we were proposed to, for instance), and on another day just be a sunset. When we think every experience must have meaning, we can get caught up in romanticizing and be sorely disappointed.

I have been guilty of this, of trying to squeeze meaning out of something that likely didn’t have any. And then suffering as a result with feelings of discouragement, bitterness, and resentment. As I continue to wrestle with meaning-making, I try to keep in mind these words by Frankl:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life… Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.

Instead of looking for meaning or even looking to create meaning, I need to challenge myself with the bidding, “What is life asking of me? What right action am I being asked to take?” This shift in perspective changes everything. It takes one from the mentality of ‘what does this mean for me, myself, and I?’ to ‘what can I do to offer meaning for someone else? How can I live a life that is of right conduct and right action for the greater good?’ (At least that’s how I interpret Frankl’s words here.)

As I’m writing this, I am coming to the realization that the fundamental question isn’t “what is the meaning of life?” but rather, “what is my part in it?” Life already contains meaning in and of itself, we just need to figure out what our contribution to it is and take responsibility for not only figuring this out but actually living it out. This changes our approach from one of ‘life owes me,’ to one of ‘I take ownership of my gifts and of sharing them.’

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.

― Viktor E. Frankl

According to Frankl, life has so much meaning that it’s beyond our rational grasp. What a thought! That is an idea I can get on board with.

Maybe meaning is to life what confetti is to a party — the spreading of joy in tiny pieces, adding color and cheer. Some of us choose to quickly sweep it up and throw it in the trash, while others choose to let it stick in their hair like a pretty pin. The choice is ours.

Whatever meaning we make of our lives, we all will at some point be “questioned by life.” We will all have to answer the call “will I show up? will I take responsibility for creating a life that matters to me?” How we answer that determines to a great extent the direction of our life. May we choose wisely. May we choose meaningfully.

What are your thoughts on searching for and/or creating meaning? I’d love to know.