What is the meaning of life?
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
These are the final words of the dissolute, alcoholic lawyer Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens' "Tale Of Two Cities" as he take the place of the condemned husband of the woman he loves at the guillotine. In this final act of self-redemption he finds a meaning and a purpose for what he perceived to be a wasted life.
This is just a popular story with the typical Victorian love of melodrama and but it does touch on certain universal themes in the search for the meaning of life: altruism, self sacrifice, and a greater good.
But at the root this is a narrative about choice.
Sydney Carton made a decision - a conscious choice - to sacrifice his life to save the life of the husband of the woman he loved.
His found the meaning of life through the exercising of a choice.
This highlights the fundamental basis for finding the meaning of life:
Framing is about communication and how we create meaning in our communications - with others and within ourselves. It is also about how we define context, make associations, establish reference points and emotional touch points all designed and positioned to convey the sense and meaning of something - in this instance how things are and the meaning of life.
The Stoics had a good handle on this. In the The Stoic Challenge William Irvine noted that the
Stoics’ had an appreciation of a phenomenon
that has been rediscovered by modern psychologists who call it
the framing effect.
The Stoics realised that we have considerable flexibility in how we frame the situations we experience.
In the video below William Irvine discusses this point.
The broad context is about how you frame difficult experiences in life, but the theme of framing applies to everything you experience in life including your perspective on the meaning of life.
William Irvine on Framing - extract from Stoicism & Framing
The stoics made an important distinction about activities that make our life meaningful.
This distinction was introduced by Aristotle, who said that there are two broad categories of activities that
may make life meaningful: Telic and Atelic.
In Greek the word "telos" means purpose, or goal.
Telic activities are goal-oriented activities
However, there is an inherent paradox in telic activities:
If you fail, you are unhappy because you have failed.
But if you succeed, then the pleasure derived from attaining your goal is weakened at the moment you do
achieve it and disappears shortly afterwards.
Thus the difficulty is that whilst telic activities can be very meaningful for you, that meaningfulness cannot be sustained.
Aristotle proposed that we may find the meaningfulness that we seek from the secondary category of activity.
Atelic activities are activities that are undertaken for their own sake
Atelic activities are undertaken for their own sake and not to achieve a specific goal.
For example, recreational walking along a coastline or in a forest is an activity undertaken just because you like walking.If you play the guitar, or any other musical instrument, you do this for its own sake because it gives you pleasure and not because you want to join a rock band or an orchestra.
In these instances, the activity is its own reward. Contrary to the telic activities, the reward is potentially endlessly renewable.
For most of us, the most important atelic activities in life are relationship focused, such as spending time with your partner, your children (if you have any), and your friends.
These activities are pleasurable, meaningful, and potentially can last a lifetime.
Massimo Pigliucci (a present day philosopher who espouses Stoicism) has said that:
"...a key concept of Stoicism is that the chief good in life is the practice of virtue. And virtue is to be practiced not in order to make oneself look good, or to achieve a personal goal. It is to be practiced because it is good in itself, it is it’s own reward.
Virtue, that is, is a fundamentally atelic activity, and it keeps providing us with meaning all the way to the moment we die.
Moreover, while we may lose our partner, friends, and even our children, before that last moment comes, we do not lose the ability to practice virtue, no matter what.
That’s why the Stoics valued relationships and
friendship very much ...of course how you relate to your
partner, children, and friends (as well as anyone else, for that matter)
is precisely how you practice virtue."
Become an everyday hero in a present day millennial context
In Seven Paths to a Meaningful Life Professor Philip Zimbardo a giant in the field of social psychology draws on five decades of teaching and research to reveal the secrets of a fulfilling life to graduating seniors delivered in a commencement address at the University of Puget Sound in 2013.
He concludes his talk with what he regarded as his most important point and it is a point that embodies the practice of virtue in a present day millennial context:
"Train yourself to become an everyday hero"
"Let the most valued private virtues of compassion and empathy be your guiding light, but let readiness to engage in everyday heroic action be your daily goal and your most respected civic virtue. Develop a personal code of honor that you are willing to share with others.
Heroism is acting on behalf of others in need or in defense
of a moral cause despite potential risks and costs. Thus, it requires a
socio-centric orientation rather than an egocentric one. Egocentrism,
like pessimism and cynicism, is an enemy of heroism.
You will be more likely to notice someone in need if you have developed the daily habit of opening yourself to other people by routinely noticing what others are doing and imagining what they are feeling.
One way to do so each day, in some way, is by trying to make other people feel special, respected, and valued—by sharing with them justifiable complements, while acknowledging their unique individuality.
Also remember that when people are organized into action networks, they carry out the most effective heroism, not as solo warriors.
The challenges before you are many, the opportunities endless, all awaiting your solutions, your youthful energies, and most of all, your glowing idealism ready to be infused into a new kind of smart and wise social activism that can reshape our society in the next decades.
My call to action: Just Do It—But Do It Heroically"
Clearly there is great value in goal-oriented/telic activity. Having a clear sense of life purpose and a clarity of focus on the one thing are important - especially if you have a personality type that is goal oriented.
Alternatively, you may be less goal oriented and naturally gravitate towards an atelic focused life.
However, for most of us we sit somewhere along the telic - atelic spectrum.
So how to bring your engagement in telic and atelic activities into a balanced whole?
How to retain a sense of sustained meaningfulness in telic activity and maximise the meaningfulness of atelic activity?
The single most resourceful way of finding and sustaining renewable meaning is the the practise of mindfulness.
Specifically, mindfulness is a practise that enables you:
The practice of mindfulness can be undertaken with telic and ateli activities and as such enhances the meaningfulness of both types of activities.
The meaning of life is not a concept, an idea or a philosophy, it is an experience.
You can waste so much time seeking the meaning of life when it is here right now.
Being stuck in seeking is the biggest block to being present to the meaning of life.
How Does The "The Meaning Of Life" Align With The Themes Of This Site?
Here are a number of touch points:
Further reading:What Is My Life Purpose
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