Living As Meaning

“What is The Meaning of Life”—people either ignore or embrace the question depending on how hard it grabs them by the shoulders and shakes them.  My own answer is that being alive is, in itself, in ways we are rarely conscious of, the meaning that we are seeking.

First,  though, there’s an odd feature of the question to consider. We might expect that responses to it would consist of the usual kinds of explications of meaning, such as definitions or descriptions of an essence or secret. Instead, answers to “What is the meaning of life”–WITMOL for short–are almost always about purpose. The answers articulate a goal or describe a state of being to be achieved. You can see this trend in Wikipedia’s encyclopedic article on the “Meaning of Life,” where most of the 120 answers to WITMOL are purpose statements–from Plato’s “pursuing knowledge of the Good” to pop culture’s “leaving the world a better place than you found it.” WITMOL is a bit of the Wizard of Oz: look behind the big show and you find a less daunting, slightly more manageable topic: “What is the purpose of life?”–WITPOL. This isn’t too surprising, really. Meaning is, after all, largely about purpose, as when we say, “What do you mean by that?” And you can’t say much about LIFE in all caps without getting down pretty quickly to what people want or do or try to do–in other words, Purpose.

My answer to WITPOL is the biological one: our primary purpose is to survive, thrive, and pass on our genes. I know that response may seem inadequate. It might be true for plants and animals, but for humans too? But it makes sense to me from a number of different directions. It is, for starters, the common denominator for every living thing on the planet. It is also true that for about a third of the humans on that planet, surviving–never mind thriving–is an uphill battle every day.

But the main reason that our biological imperative also serves as our lofty purpose in life is that even for the comfortable middle-class, the basic drives are never far away; we just carry them out in the middle of modern urban conditions in different guises than we did when conditions were less technological. We still compete to survive but now the competition takes place in the world of business and other contests. We might choose not to have children but to be remembered in other ways, through creativity or fame and celebrity. We “love” not only our mate but also new foods and clothes, and we cheer violence when it’s carried out by our side. We are living new versions of an old story. Our big brains may be drawn to big abstractions about purpose, such as the love of God and the greater good of humanity. But the purpose that never lets up is the body/mind equipment keeping us on track, checking that we have enough water, food, safety, children, money, allies, and fulfillment.

Following and fulfilling our basic drives, with all the choices, perseverance, and mastery that that entails, is our meaning and purpose. To put it another way, living is meaning.

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