Humans are creatures searching for meaning in a world that seems not to have any particular meaning — all those stars we see far up in the sky don’t even try to make sense and just cause a wonderful and colossal explosion of energy. Oh, how much we don’t like the idea, don’t we?
We can’t accept that life can be just a spectacular happening, saying: “There must be something to it, some turning point.” Or in other words, we can’t accept the words of Blaise Pascal: “The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.” Therefore, we want to fit all of existence into the system of symbols we have created.
Most of us cannot live without meaning— just “be,” so we find some ideology, philosophy or religion to fill the void. Also, we live in a society that makes us obsessed with our individuality, systemic way of life, and cultural key that at least gives us some purpose to pursue. And the obvious problem is a delusion — detachment from reality.
We forget that any ideology, philosophy, religion, or social and cultural rules are made by us and have nothing to do with nature or reality. The whole idea of meaning is only a psychological or social construct. And we need all these because of our phenomenal cerebral capability — compared to other creatures, that makes us greatly aware of all the happening, but most importantly, we have a great sense of self-awareness. In this way, we don’t operate only by our instincts, like other animals, but try to purposely arrange the world by rules, systems, symbols, etc.
And our capabilities alone aren’t the problem by any means — it’s great that we have them. Despite all the dilemmas of today’s world, we have built a pretty comfortable life on a large scale. We went this far because of our ability to organize, which alone is a great thing.
But we don’t fight for survival anymore — we already dominate this planet, and after the Postindustrial Revolution, our work is based on services, not production. For example, we moved from 43% employment in agriculture in 1991 to 26% in 2021. It might not seem like a big deal, but the total employment in agriculture in developed countries like the US, UK, or affluent European countries is usually less than 2%.
We don’t work to survive anymore, but people must do something in life, or they will go crazy with all their thoughts and emotions. In other words, we know too much, feel too much, or are too sensitive to just sit and do nothing. And it’s both a blessing and a disaster.
Nevertheless, we must understand one thing — we can find a purpose in society and play some role, but we must not confuse this with a general meaning of life. Nature, or actually the whole universe, doesn’t care about the system of symbols we created. And it’s pretty simple to understand when we detach ourselves from the system of symbols and become silent even for a while in a quiet place or preferably in nature. Then everything will become clear, as it is clear to all other beings. In fact, as Confucius said: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
What if the meaning of life is that you are here and now, reading this sentence, feeling something and raising your eyebrows? What if this happening and our sensitivity in the present is all we came for? As Alan Wilson Watts once tried to explain: “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.”
Then why do we do all of this? Well, why do we play Monopoly, hide and seek, and go to the theatre for shows or movies? To play and experience, isn’t it? Because technically, to live, we need to drink, eat and sleep. We could stop and live just like other animals when adding reproduction to the list. But we are such interesting and super creative beings who, consciously or not, created this wonderful spectacle in which individuals live in a collectively living society with a bunch of rules and limitations, playing their roles so great they forget that they’re just playing.
In other words, life has no particular meaning, but we invest an immense amount of collective effort in organizing ourselves in society to build a playground for various experiences. For most of the time in our history, we battled with each other because we couldn’t agree upon the rules of playing this life. But at the end of the last century, we generally agreed to a set of rules and set the stage for the modern everyday life we finally experience — a postindustrial capitalistic system based on services with globalization and a focus on the individual. What will be next? Hard to predict, but there are some ideas, especially with artificial intelligence. Either way, we’ll find a common challenge to never get bored — that’s for sure.
However, we can not only find some purpose in society — a social role we want to play, but also our individual meaning of life in general. And this is a great thing because, in fact, life can be whatever we want it to be once we break free from the pressure of society and culture. There are endless possibilities and as long as we live, this world is our playground where we can experience and explore our curiosity.
Nevertheless, we must remember that the world allows us to play this way, but we cannot force the world to fit our values. Whatever meaning we find is only a psychological or social idea, not reality. And if we want to continue our play, we should stop demolishing this world like irresponsible children who break their best toys and then complain about it.