“I am here to learn.”
That’s what I said on one memorable occasion many years ago when two friends of mine, Ryan and Kofi, plus my wife, were sitting in a restaurant for a meal together talking over the immemorial question, the “meaning of life.” I forget Kofi’s answer (my wife’s as well). I think at that point he was in the process of converting to Christianity, though I was never clear what, in his mind, he had been before that momentous event. He was my biz school buddy, a thoughtful Ghanaian fellow whom I found easily conversational and—for a business student—surprisingly reflective. We worked on many projects together in a number of classes. I remember him fondly not so much for any opinion he held as for the fact he seemed to really enjoy questioning me on everything.
My other friend, Ryan, was a PhD in biochemistry and working on a degree in law—a killer combo that, as now he lives in Greenwich, CT and works as a patent lawyer. His wife, who always wanted to live the life of an aristocratic stay-at-home mom, got her wish. Ryan though, despite his education, was not as reflective as Kofi, and perhaps that’s why I remember his answer. Ryan said the meaning of life was “to be happy.
I immediately felt terribly dissatisfied with that answer—it was way, way, way, way too easy. You already know my answer.
So why? Why did I feel my brilliant friend’s answer was wrong and my answer right—or at least much better? And why do I still feel that way?
I want to emphasize: answers in this domain are neither right nor wrong. Despite the pontifications of certain Iron Age mythologies to the contrary, life, by its very nature, is never binary: good/bad, right/wrong, well spent/squandered, etc. Yes, one is either alive or dead (on/off), but that’s not the point. We’re talking about life itself, not what comes after it, either in the religious or biological sense.
I’d like to first point out that the variability of our answers—and feel free to include your own in the mix—is clear proof that my meaning in life is not yours. There is no single answer, such as “42” as calculated by Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. So the question “What is the meaning of life?” is wrongly put. This much ought to be obvious. We are not looking for a meaning so much as meaning in general, as in, I find my life meaningful because of so-and-so, or, more to the point, so-and-so is meaningful for me.
Ironically, this would seem to prove Ryan’s point. For him, and several billion others whom I suspect share his viewpoint, happiness is what is meaningful. But what if while living in his beautiful house with his beautiful wife something bad should happen? The house burns down. The wife dies or goes crazy or has an affair. Their son tumbles out of a window and is paralyzed for life. What if conditions obstruct or defer his experience of happiness? What if, that is, suffering intervenes? Has Ryan’s erstwhile happy and therefore meaningful life become meaningless?
I would say no.
Herein lies the problem with happiness as the point of life—it is too fickle. This is not to say some people cannot be happy under the most adverse conditions; however, regardless of how naturally cheerful you might be, deriving enjoyment from your circumstances as one’s raison d’être is a recipe for disaster. It is also, I should add, a recipe for slavery to the very circumstances you once relied upon to ensure happiness.
Consider the case of Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search For Meaning. He lived in four different camps, lost his wife and children, and was reduced to the barest, most miserable level of existence with no end in sight except death by accident, disease, abuse or the gas chamber. (He could not, of course, know just how the war was unfolding.) He concluded that while camp existence constituted a daily horror show, it was—or could be—profoundly meaningful. What mattered was not your happiness—a thing generally in short supply in such places—but your attitudes, values and choices.
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not (Man’s Search For Meaning, p. 88).
I would argue that while “happiness” (for which read emotional pleasure) as a determinant of meaning and purpose would collapse in the face of such conditions as prevailed at Auschwitz, that of learning–of curiosity, the will to growth and ennoblement–would not, indeed could not, so long as the value was held fast to. Suffering and unhappiness are inevitable and inescapable; they have to be embraced if the organism is to learn and thrive and transcend its temporary conditions.