Spoiler alert: I can’t give you the meaning of life. It’s kind of a DIY project. You have to make your own.
It wasn’t always that way. We used to get our meanings spoon-fed to us by rigid religious figures, autocratic monarchies, and dictatorial political leaders. We’ve shed some dogma over the past few centuries, but this whole DIY philosophy is still fairly new, so we haven’t quite perfected the instructions.
During the mid-20th Century, amidst changing ideas about religion, government, and social structures, a group of philosophers called Existentialists tried to write the book on the DIY meaning of life. Or lots of books on it. As one noted existentialist Jean Paul Sartre famously said “existence precedes essence”: while we are born with a number of biological characteristics and into a number of situations, we are born without an essential nature, meaning that we ultimately have the freedom (and responsibility) to create ourselves, to choose what we do with those characteristics and situations, to write our own stories.
Freedom is a Responsibility
Freedom is a tall order, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like a blessing. How, if I can’t even decide what shirt to wear, can I decide what to do with my entire life? With all the business and stress of modern day life, taking the time to discover meaning can seem impossible.
Well, I’ll let you in on a little hint: the task is smaller than it seems. Yes, you’re supposed to find meaning in your life, and yes, it’s work that no one else can do for you, and no, there is no cheat sheet. But it’s not THE meaning of life. It’s YOUR meaning in life. Which means that it can be anything you want it to, and it also means:
- You can change it. Whenever you want to. It’s not stagnant; it should grow and morph to fit where and who you are at any given point in your life. Sometimes your page might be filled with letters, others it will be completely blank. Both are okay.
- It’s YOUR meaning. Nothing anywhere says that your meaning has to reflect or look like anyone else’s chosen meaning. Maybe you have one font size 72, double-bolded meaning, or maybe you have a grocery list of meanings longer than Paul McCartney’s greatest hits list. It’s up to you.
- It’s written in pencil. You can pick up the eraser any time. No one’s asking you to carve commandments into stone for all eternity. Relax, experiment!
- Take your time. Slow and steady wins the race. You’re writing the meaning of life here, so there is no need to feel rushed.
Some (hint: very, very few) people have almost always known their purpose. They’ve had a clear blueprint in their minds of the life they were building since they laid the first brick at age 7, taking the talent show by storm with a rendition of Barbara Streisand’s Don’t Rain on My Parade, and continuing into adulthood with a relentless search for a record deal. Truth be told, I am skeptical of those who claim to have always known what they wanted to do with their lives and never faltered once. Faltering, it seems, is inevitable.
Life comes in waves, and many times throughout our lives we will pick up that pencil to continue writing our story only to do nothing but erase it completely. Our meaning becomes a blank page, staring back at our questioning mind with no response.
This blank page pops up often in my story and sometimes goes on for chapters and chapters to the point where I start to think my book will remain blank forever. Apathy and its demented father Nihilism have played a significant role in my life. They are the price one pays for an ideology that grants freedom and choice over dogma and tradition.
It can be really hard, after long bouts of apathy, to create something out of nothing again. So how do you do it? How do you give your meaning some content again? Ironically enough, you put the book down. You stop worrying about what to write. You stop thinking, and just be.
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
– Alan Watts
Learning to Be
For me, I pulled myself out of a two-year dance with nihilism by quitting my professional job and going to work on a farm. I still thought I had no clue what I wanted to do, what my purpose was, but I knew I needed to take a few months to just be.
I lived off-the-grid in the middle of the rainforest with no televisions, no phone, and intermittent wifi that was powered by a flimsy antenna on a hill and fell down in the event of a storm (it was the rainforest, so you can guess how often that happened).
I woke up early and spent six hours a day gardening and farming: planting seeds, watering plants, shoveling compost. In the afternoons, I napped, went to yoga, and read. Evenings were spent at group dinners eating farm-fresh meals and playing music around bonfires.
Amidst the repetition, physical exertion, and connection with nature, while well-removed from the gaze of others, my mind did an incredible thing: it shut up. I felt an incredible calm, unlike any I’d ever felt before, seep deep into my soul. I stopped trying to figure out my life and started to just live, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it.
Just Do It
Once you’ve got being down, you can try doing. Always remember the following two principles:
- Do not rush yourself. You will lose the progress you made while in the being stage.
- Don’t overthink, just do. You don’t have to know how something will turn out to give it a try.
And once you do enough, you’ll see your building start to build itself, brick by brick. Eventually, your building will start to come together, and you’ll get a vague picture of what it could look like. It can always go a number of ways, but each experience, paired with your personality and background, is building a foundation for you.
You might even come to find that you did know what you wanted all along. That it was just obscured by competing priorities, by an unforeseen event in your life, or by the judgments of others. Life has a way of pulling you off track or redirecting your track completely with bills and babies and illnesses and serendipitous love affairs. Your own mind has a way of pulling you off track by worrying too much about what other people think, comparing you to others, telling you no when it wants to say yes, or yes when it wants to say no, fearing risk and failure.
But often there is one thing, or a handful of things, or even just a general concept, that has tugged at us since that first-grade talent show or made reappearance after reappearance in our lives, as if by chance, but as it turns out that quieter part of you that feared failure was willing it back again and again all along.
What is that one thing?
Find that. And do that.
If you’re not sure, try new things! Experiment!
Life is in the Transitions
Eventually, I came home. Although the transition is always hard, I had done something. I had done something that scared me at that, and not only did I do it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It opened the doors up to all kinds of other things that would have scared me before but now only excited me. I felt reinvigorated and ready for the “do” phase of my life-building. I had slowly but surely prioritized and narrowed the focus of my goals and started to string them together into something semi-cohesive. My meaning building was starting to take shape.
I still don’t know what it’s going to look like. I still have frequent moments of indifference and anxiety about the future, although now I find them easier to overcome. I still have a lot of work to do and plenty of life left to live (statistically speaking, roughly 55 years). I’m sure I will change my mind many times along the way, shift my focus, decide to build an extra wing or demolish an entire floor during my life-building. And it very well could come crumbling down one day after I’ve already built 44 stories. Right now, I just hope that I’m creating a strong enough foundation to rebuild.