Meaning is almost impossible to define rigorously. It is a nebulous term used in many different, though interconnected, contexts. What I am talking about specifically is the idea of meaning as something that exists apart from the physicality of an event or object. Meaning is a perceived property of the universe that makes one bit of matter more significant than another. For instance, I find handwritten letters from loved ones to be ‘meaningful’.
We are meaning machines. We produce and consume it constantly at all times. We impart significance to the physical world that goes far beyond its merely physical properties. This is the realm of thoughts, ideas, emotions and memories. Our personal perceptions of reality are never objective. They are heavily coloured by our beliefs, expectations, and our tendency to look for higher meaning behind what we see. At the most basic physical level, everything we experience is the universe interacting with itself. What we process however, is the meaning behind what we experience. Our interpretation of an experience can be more important than the physical reality of the experience. In the words of Aldous Huxley: “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.”
What does meaning do for us? It colours our experience. Our lives would be drab and boring if all we saw were probabilistic chemical and physical reactions driving the world. Emotions and thoughts are the meaning in our eveyday experience, and they are what we truly experience. Thoughts themselves can be seen to represent our freedom from the apparent deterministic mechanism of our universe. Within the space of thought, we are free. Imagination and dream can take us on wonderous, meaning-filled journeys.
There is no necessary physical basis for meaning of this sort. Absurdists would argue that I am just ‘being happy’ before I die, and that there is nothing more to it than that. Personally though, I will claim that meaning and empathy are hard-wired into us from birth. I have no doubt that meaning makes life more enjoyable and interesting. Without meaning I argue that thoughts cannot exist, without thoughts I argue consciousness cannot exist. Without consciousness of some form, this universe could never experience itself.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Dr. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, describes the experiences that led him to develop Logotherapy in the aftermath of his internment at Auschwitz during WWII. Logotherapy means “therapy through meaning”. The foundational principle is that meaning in life is critical to mental and physical health.
Frankl observed a great deal of death during his time at Auschwitz, and not all of it had to do with mass murder, violence, or starvation. As a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, he learned to see the connections between a person’s mental state and their chances of surviving. Those people who had no hope died sooner than those who had it.
At one point he tells the story of a scientist who had finished an entire series of scientific works except for the very last volume. This scientist was set on surviving Auschwitz in the hope of finishing what only he could finish. He also tells stories of people who were physically hardy and healthy at the beginning of their internment. Those who lacked hope still died quickly in the conditions of Auschwitz. Meaning seemed to be a better measure of health, and to some extent quality of life, than what his medical training could tell him.
Frankl also talks about how a state of moderate striving is in some ways the healthiest state for a human. When we have something to strive for, he argues, it focuses us and keeps us going. Conversely, a state which lacks strife can be very unhealthy. A general lack of motivation in life can kill us, albeit slowly. If we have no light on the horizon that we are chasing, we are more likely to live a relatively short, meaningless existence.
Man’s Search for Meaning is an incredible work, yet manages to be very concise. It is one of the few books to which I give a universal “must read” recommendation.
What does all this mean to me personally?
It means to me that I should keep chasing my ideals, including my sometimes ridiculously ambitious goals, as well as continue to set the bar higher for myself in every area of my life. Every bit of effort and determination will lead me to greater things, as well as strengthen my hold on reality. I hold on to my goals and dreams because I still have hope.
I am bothered by the fact that many people seem to not have goals, or have convinced themselves that chasing ‘foolish dreams’ is unhealthy, childish, dangerous, or useless. All of us have at some time or another convinced ourselves that we are incapable of something. There is a certain practicality here, since these sort of decisions can save lives if the action considered is of great risk.
With regards to personal growth however, it is a very dangerous thing to lock yourself in with thoughts of how you can never progress past a certain point. How very foolish we are to think that our dreams or goals are something to be ashamed of, or something to brush off as childish thoughts. These thoughts might seem ‘childish’ to us because they are usually based on the simplest and purest of our emotions. Happiness, wonder, and love are what we seem to fundamentally strive for as humans, and our hopes and dreams are expressions of these desires.
Do not get caught staring at the limits that you believe exist. Don’t let yourself be hypnotized by the imagined finish line so much that you forget about the race. In many areas, there are fundamental or practical limits to what can be accomplished. These are useful to know about, but possibly damaging if kept in mind at all times. What most people don’t realise is that the absolute limits of your personal growth are not important. The current limits of your imagination and passion are what usually hold you back the most. Being well aware of your current limits will help you to understand if you are making progress, and also help you to do so safely. Especially in the area of physical endeavors, knowing your current limits is an absolutely critical step in being able to expand them safely.
Our limits are like balloons. Expanding out from your core; the greater the internal pressure, the further the edges get pushed. The passion of your life is what fills your balloon, and expands both your capabilities and your horizons.