I think the best answer I can come up with to ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ is to admit that since my early twenties, when I began a very earnest spiritual quest, my search for ‘the meaning of life’ has been an abject failure. That is, I have failed to find a satisfactory answer to why this world/universe/existence came to be, that didn’t immediately yield another question? And, continuing on down that rabbit hole has only left my head hurting and mind tangled in knots.
What has proven more fruitful in recent years however, has been the search for how to derive meaning and purpose from my experience of this life. If we are to assume that a fulfilling life is one which is rooted in meaning and purpose then this quest would seem to be a worthy one, and at the same time a challenging one — by it’s very nature this is a quest which requires one’s appetite for self reflection is equal to their curiosity in how the world ticks.
To date I have found that it’s my ability to adopt the best perspective in this moment that defines whether I derive meaning and purpose from my life. Put short how we look at the world defines how we experience it.
The perspective that has so far proven most effective over time is that life is inherently tragi-comic. Somewhere between the two poles of tragedy and comedy there is a sweet spot between sincerity on the one hand, and the absurd on the other, which can be immensely powerful in helping navigate an increasingly complex world.
Too much of one and we risk losing the objectivity that is not only necessary to engage with others respectfully, but also to be self reflective about what we are learning through the experience.
Take the environment for example.
Yes, when we look the data square in the face, what we are doing to the planet is nothing short of a tragedy. And when faced with a tragedy, we must be sincere in our attempts to truly understand its consequences — otherwise any attempt at empathy will be hollow. As a former environmental campaign journalist I speak from experience. To be insincere about the loss of our beloved planet’s biodiversity is like making a joke about the deceased at a funeral wake: “You know that planet earth was a really nice guy/gal, but you know what they had it coming to them…”
However, I have found that too much exposure to tragedy can equally leave us numb and prone to depression. When this happens we’ll either quit, or deny our feelings and become over earnest in our desire to persuade others of our point of view. Go too far and our sense of self-importance can become over bearing and therefore prone to patronise. The net result is that I will distance myself from others, and learn nothing from how I have grown from this experience. My sense of what is meaningful is dulled, my sense of purpose blunted.
It is then that the prospective of the absurd can be helpful.
Yes, when you think about it, what we are doing to the planet is also utterly ridiculous. Take the destruction of the rain forest to make way for soy farming. No this is not to supply the burgeoning demand for tofu from legions of newly baptised vegans, it’s to feed cattle and poultry which largely supplies the Fast Food industry. So, not only do we destroy a valuable source of oxygen, and means of reducing the green house effect (the rainforest is a carbon sink), we do it in service of an industry which some say increases the desire for instant gratification while also reducing cognitive function. This naturally lends itself to satire such as the image of a man feeding himself with one hand while hitting himself over the head with a baseball bat with the other so he doesn’t have to consider the consequences — personal and collective — of what he is consuming.
From the perspective of the absurd I can recover from the emotional low of having been exposed to tragedy for so long; my senses are lightened and wits sharpened once more and from there I can engage with the world in creative and intelligent ways that once more awaken and refine my sense of purpose.
However, if I stay too long in this perspective I can similarly become too cynical about how ‘on earth’ we’re going to educate a population of Homer Simpsons with an errant ability to put their finger into the light socket over and over?’ Here, by the same token, I risk again objectifying the people I am trying to emotionally appeal too. Out stay my welcome in this perspective and I may become so embittered that I come full circle and end up on the same meds being used to treat the depression of those over exposed to tragedy.
It is then, I need to tack back towards the sweet spot and rediscover my sincerity once more so that I can begin to accept the things I perhaps cannot change (at least not immediately). Once there I can begin to empathise with others as people, who while they may be implicit in the problem, are still no less human and deserving of my understanding.
Over time I have found that the closer I am to the sweet spot between tragedy and comedy, the more appreciative I am of life’s challenges. In any one moment either my sincerity or sense of the absurd may need the antidote of the other to return to a more even keel where the greatest learning about myself and the world is available. Through understanding my part in life’s experience my sense of purpose is galvanised and I can engage more effectively, whether that be with my family or wider society.
~Nick Kettles is an author, storyteller, therapist; a former environmental journalist and householder monk in a Vedic order who now works as a coach and leadership development trainer.