WHAT is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? For thousands of years, philosophers across time have dealt with the question to end all questions.
What is the meaning of life? From Socrates and Aristotle to Thomas Nagel. The very essence of humanity is embedded with the deep curiosity to know more. We poke at the cosmos and reach into the depths of our oceans in search for answers pertaining to our place within the vast universe.
In the Essays of Montaigne by French Renaissance sceptic and humanist Michel de Montaigne, it is said “that to study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die”. For others, the question itself seems absurd in the face of how everything else is so big when trying to view humanity’s place amongst everything.
English writer Douglas Noel Adams, for example, merely offers the number “42” as an answer to the question of, “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”
Whether one considers the theological or practical approach to this notion of finding meaning in our lives, one fact remains clear; humanity is motivated to search their whole lives for something that for all we know, may not even be there. But as the famous writer J.R.R. Tolkien once said: “Not all those who wander are lost”.
And perhaps, an early conclusion to draw right now, is that humanity is simply meant to wander, to constantly question and learn and adapt to the new and unforeseeable.
Here’s the point I’d like to make for the rest of this piece. A lot of students, and even people already entrusted into the working world, may find themselves wandering, jumping from one project to the next, one job to the other. To some others, that may seem like failure. Even to yourself, it may seem like you have no goals, if you must wander in search of answers.
For a student, you may be jumping from one major to the other. For the working man and woman, you switch jobs sometimes. Yet, I must remind you, and you to yourself; that not all who wander are lost. There is merit in searching, in the act of continuous search. Life is often short yet, just as often, it is long and seemingly unending. There is the unpredictability of what today may bring as much as what next week could bring. The best we could do, and should do, is to lead a meaningful life in the quest for that very meaning we seek out of life.
American philosopher Susan R. Wolf in her write-up The Meanings of Lives presents a thread we might unravel here; in it, she describes the criteria for leading a meaningful life. According to Wolf, to lead a meaningful life, the following criteria must be fulfilled; any pursuit we make must be an active engagement, the pursuit must have positive value and finally, the pursuit must be successful.
So how would the example of a college student jumping from major to major fulfill the criteria required to make the activity contribute to leading a meaningful life? The answer therein lies in the goal at the end of the path one sets for themselves. It is only with purpose that an activity leads anywhere.
Thus, if one were to apply the goal of seeking the major they want to study and graduate with in college through jumping through majors, we can easily see the criteria filled. The activity of jumping majors becomes an active engagement that brings positive value and when the student does find the major they finally decide upon, it can be considered a success and meaning is thus brought to their life.
However, the prospect of failure is always looming and possible in any endeavour, any pursuit in life is set to have failures no matter how great a person is. Even the professionals fall, and so is the fate of mankind. Thus, there should always be two goals leading in parallel to each other, the minor and the major goal.
Both should work in tandem to each other in achieving each other whilst adhering to the criteria for leading a meaningful life. The big goal should be the crowning achievement, the Mount Everest of your life. Set a goal for yourself, it can be unrealistic for you right now, but think for the future, in terms of decades, not months or a mere few years. The major goal should be a path that is long and out of reach right now. It is your personal “heroes journey”.
One day you will achieve that goal you have set for yourself. Whether it be to be the best in a certain profession, to literally climb Mt Everest, or simply to be able to support a family of your own with the bread and butter you bring to the table. Whether it be insurmountable or the dream of a simple life. Let your major goal float above you as you tackle the minor goals first, one at a time to take the steps towards the major goal.
The third criteria for leading a meaningful life as suggested by Wolf may seem daunting as it calls for that activity to be a success. Yet, one must keep in mind that success doesn’t have to be rushed. Success can happen today, tomorrow, or 10 years later. We often rush life, understandably because it is fragile and sometimes short.
However, life can’t be appreciated if we don’t take the time to stop and smell the roses. German philosopher Martin Heidegger was known for recognising the dangers of rushing at life through his in-depth approach at philosophy through the human relationship with technology, back in the early 50s. Heidegger wrote in his book, Die Frage nach der Technik or its English title The Question Concerning Technology, that to expect technology to simplify our lives quickly is to let it “enframe” us, it is to detract ourselves from the appreciation of the process.
An episode of the popular animated TV show The Simpsons once showed a scene in which the main character, Homer Simpson was shown a machine that could “flash fry a buffalo in 40 seconds”, to which Homer responds: “But I want it now!” The need to desire something right away detracts from the process, and patience should be a virtue, not a challenge to overcome.
Of course, at the end of the day, even if humanity is indeed motivated by the need to achieve happiness in their life. Often, happiness can only be achieved by achieving the understanding of what it is that makes themselves happy. Whether that be the ability to paint, to fly a plane, to write poetry or to solve the mysteries of black hole event horizon. All human desires lead towards a goal that is achieved via continues wandering in the life granted to humanity.
The classic Greek philosopher Socrates, as written in Plato’s The Apology, submits an interesting analogy we can draw upon towards the conclusion of this piece. In it, Socrates talks about how a horse breeder is a specialised individual tasked with the care of horses to ensure they are taken care of positively where the common person would have a negative effect on the horse. Thus, Socrates suggests that if we expect such expertise for the breeding of a horse, it would be odd to think that simply anyone could be expected to improve a person without the proper expertise.
The conclusion that can be added here is that for all the knowledge in the world that we wander in search of, study is required, and study is done under the expert guidance of teachers in their respective fields. It seems the philosophers have indeed figured something out that most might not have. Or perhaps we are all still lost and wandering.
Whatever the truth is, we must continuously strive to understand for the true major goal of humanity, should be not to answer whether there is meaning to life, but to make life itself meaningful to themselves through their own effort.