What is the meaning of life?
I’ve never been able to attach much meaning to the phrase “the meaning of life.” I prefer the word “mattering” to “meaning,” because I think the notion of mattering is grounded in a basic psychological truth, which is this: we each of us want to matter. There is a will to matter which is as fundamental as the will to survive. In fact, when we become convinced that we don’t, can’t, will never matter, our very will to survive can be destroyed.
What exactly does this mean, “the will to matter?” It means that we desperately do not want it to be the case that we count for nothing in this world, that the world would have been exactly the same, no difference at all, had we never been born. That negative possibility, that our existence makes not the slightest difference, is a depressing thought. In fact, it seems to capture the very essence of clinical depression. Depressed people are very apt to say that they don’t matter. A web cite that tries to address people who might be contemplating suicide is called You Matter.
In a certain sense we can’t help but feel that we matter. We are all driven to pursue our own self-interest. Life without devotion to our own survival and flourishing is incoherent. We are devoted to ourselves, to making our lives work. Our every emotion –whether it’s pride or shame, love or hatred, desire or revulsion, gratitude or anger, inspiration or disillusion — attests to our mattering to ourselves, to our reacting to the things that impinge on our sense of ourselves. One matters irresistibly to oneself (even the suicide can’t bear the feeling of pain to the self), and this makes one long to matter in some more impersonal way, to matter in a larger sphere than simply within one’s own singular life. One longs to feel a mattering commensurate with one’s devotion to one’s own survival and flourishing. And so we try to create a larger way of mattering, whether religiously or secularly, through our relationships with others, our mattering to them, or by actualizing our talents, or by cultivating our capacity for greater experience. The ways we find for achieving our own sense of mattering are as numerous as human interests and talents and personality traits. I have known people who derive their sense of mattering out of always being the best-dressed person in the room, or the funniest person, or the best-connected. In one of my earliest books, I made up a term, “the mattering map,” to refer to these different ways in which we try to achieve our own personal sense of mattering. Quite often, the only people whose opinion of us really matters are those who share our own region of the mattering map. These ways we find of achieving our personal mattering is relative to who we happen to be, shaped by the genes we inherit, the culture we inhabit. But what isn’t relative — what’s absolute — is the will to matter. It is part of the human condition and is responsible for both the best and the worst in us. We are, just like other animals, made up of matter. But we are matter who long to matter.
Are all ways of achieving mattering equal? I think not. A sense of mattering that comes at the expense of others’ achieving a sense of mattering is a violation of yet another basic truth, this one an ethical one: to the extent that any of us matters, we all matter to that same extent. A group of people who are slighted in terms of their mattering, whether for racial or economic or cultural reasons, are being done a fundamental wrong. There can be no justification for such wrongs. So, after a recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, here in the U.S. many of us used the hashtag on Twitter #blacklivesmatter. As do women’s lives, and children’s lives, and gays’ lives. As do all lives. This is what I meant by saying that the will to matter is responsible for both the best and the worst in us. When we achieve our own sense of mattering at the expense of making others feel that they don’t matter, removing from them the means of working out for themselves a life that matters, then we’ve done them a terrible injustice. And if we’ve made moral progress over the centuries — and I think we have — it’s by progressively coming to recognize the mattering of people quite different from ourselves. But we’re not done yet; we still have a great deal of progress to make to achieve an equitable distribution of mattering across all peoples.
How do I, personally, pursue my own will to matter? My choice of profession gives the answer. I’m a professional philosopher, a writer, a teacher. I pursue my mattering by trying to understand the human condition and seeking to share whatever I’ve learned with others.
~Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher, writer, teacher
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