life is an issue that has been plaguing thoughtful people since the first Cro-magnons evolved into modern homo sapiens with the power to think rationally and creatively, and most importantly, self-consciously. Aside from humorous attempts to explain the meaning of life such as Monty Python's movie The Meaning of Life, the question is a serious one. It cuts to the core of every human life, causing the individual to question his or her purpose and mode of living. Many people look to religious guidance as a means of discovering meaning in life, and religion remains the most effective way of providing people with a roadmap. Even if the absolute meaning of life is not revealed, we can at least learn to accept that God has a plan and that plan is inherently meaningful. Philosophers, however, have debated the efficacy of religion's ability to provide life with meaning. Existentialism is the one branch of philosophy that is by definition concerned primarily with the meaning of life and human existence. Whereas some existentialists acknowledge the potential for God to provide meaning, others deny the relevance of God and point to an essentially meaningful or nihilistic universe. For example, the writing of Albert Camus show that life is as absurd as a Monty Python movie and that life does not need to have meaning in order for people to be happy. Most people will not be satisfied with an absurdist viewpoint though. Confronted almost daily with our own mortality, and especially in acute life-and-death situations, a person looks to God and religion to find meaning in what is essentially a painful and difficult existence.
Science has attempted, rather futilely, to explain the meaning of life. As Colls (2011) points out, scientists can explain specific phenomenon and the meaning of those phenomena within a narrow context or framework. Therefore, a scientist can tell me that my mother has cancer because cells are mutating in a dysfunctional way. What the scientist cannot tell me is why this is happening to her, and why she was put on this planet if only to die. Science cannot answer the question "why are we here?" But science can tell us that we evolved from single-celled organisms. The answers given by science are categorically unacceptable to those who believe there is more to life than the materialistic universe.
Philosophers like Camus have been asking whether it is fruitful to even wonder about the meaning of life. We drive ourselves crazy trying to find meaning, rather than enjoying the bounty of the present moment. In most ways, I would agree with this assessment. Blogger Tina Su (n.d.) claims that life is what we make of it. Chasing meaning is fruitless and leads to dissatisfaction. Meaning can be found in the most mundane activities, especially when those activities are placed within the context of selfless service. Those of us with strong family and community ties can appreciate the value of helping others in imbuing all our actions with meaning. The meaning of life might be as simple as that: helping others.
However, if we settle for this simple explanation we risk creating a logical fallacy. If life has meaning only to help others, then why do people need our help? The search for meaning begs for absolute causes for the situation we are in. Instead of taking the easy way out by denying the relevance of the question, or by reducing the question to the most obvious and mundane matters, it can be fruitful to study religion and philosophy in depth. Thagard (2010) goes so far as to suggest that our brains create all the meaning that we need in life because of the neural processes that become engaged when we are engaged with the world.
Life does take on new meaning when we engage in selfless service; that much is true and can be proven in the way that most people would agree that Mother Teresa led a more meaningful life than I have (presuming I will never run an orphanage in a developing country). The power of service to give one's personal life meaning needs to be distinguished from the bigger question of, Why are we here? That deeper question is the one that has plagued philosophers. The meaning of one's individual life is a rather modern construction, because it is rooted in an individualistic worldview. As such, the search for individual meaning or a sense of one's own destiny, could be culturally bound. Zlatev (2002), for example, finds that cultural norms greatly impact the ascription of meaning onto objects or abstract ideas. The search for personal meaning might be culturally bound, too, as in a collectivist society the individual does not become concerned with personal purpose but rather what the person can do for the village. A collectivist society puts into practice what John F. Kennedy said about, "It's not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Therefore, one of the ways an individual finds meaning must be through service for others; service to the self will invariably leave one questioning why they have been put on the planet. A person who questions the meaning of life without performing selfless service will have a harder time finding answers to existential questions.
Moreover, the real question of life's meaning tends to arise most strongly in situations where death and mortality are raised. This is because the finality of death and the mystery of what happens in the hereafter can make this life seem meaningless. Why were we born, if we only age, decay, and die? Save for the truly great among us like Mother Teresa, life has seemingly no meaning if all that happens in the end is death. For Christians, death does offer an added dimension of meaning. Christians believe that we can achieve salvation via a belief in Christ, and that Christ offers eternal life -- a belief that certainly makes life seem more meaningful.
When bad things happen to good people, the suffering that is endemic in the human experience becomes poignant and powerful, often intolerable. People start to commit suicide, or at least think about it. Suffering is why people want or need meaning in their lives. This is why the meaning of life is an issue that should be taken seriously. Happiness can be our greatest enemy on the quest for life's meaning because it breeds complacency. When we are happy, we will not question as fervently the meaning of life because our happiness sustains us and helps us forget that suffering is all around us. Happiness can create a scenario in which ignorance is bliss. Some might say our happiness blinds us to the inherent suffering at the heart of human life. In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl presents a remarkable personal journey of one who lived through the Holocaust without losing faith. Frankl not only retains his faith in God but also in the human race. The book is phenomenal in that it offers hope to all people for whome life becomes intolerable. This book has become a classic, because it shows how man's search for meaning is precipitated by suffering, but that suffering can become a tremendous tool for learning. When people are presented with terrible circumstances that make us question God, the most important thing we can do is to draw upon a reserve of faith. Faith helps mitigate the existential angst that comes from not knowing the meaning of life. We become more humble, as we stop questioning life's meaning so much as we start trusting that God has a plan and that plan is good.
Suffering and the contemplation of mortality are the two main reasons why the search for meaning is an important quest. Human beings suffer, and we need to know why. We become suicidal when we cannot find a purpose in life. For some people, that purpose does not even come from having a family. Many people find no meaning in life, even when they have people who are counting on them. The same is true for people with mental illnesses like depression. Mental illnesses have the power to dampen one's sense of joy and enthusiasm for life, and can genuinely numb the soul. What is the meaning of their impaired ability to find joy and happiness? When we read stories like that of Andrea Yates, who murdered all her children by drowning them, it does give cause to probe life's meaning.
Baggani (2004) takes the side of the existentialists when he claims that often the search is futile. "We think of the quest for life's meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road…the truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all front. Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes." Another issue is that most people will never get to the Emerald City at all; we cannot expect that suddenly…