The Search for Meaning
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
Meaning is very personal for most people. There are many ways to seek answers to all your questions, and can turn a peaceful search into a confusing one. When I discuss spirituality, I speak from a place of guidance and community and it doesn't matter what your beliefs are, just as long as you gain knowledge and insight from it. If it makes you happy, and provides meaning then find the place or idea that brings that to you. With the stillness that was forced upon us this year, I am fortunate enough to have the time and space to reflect on many things. After losing my brother in 2018, finding meaning however, has been a challenge for me. I don't think I will ever stop the search, but I have come to a better point in that journey because of the people in my life, the literature I read, the travels I do, and the nature I get to embrace. Trauma in the death of someone hits you at unexpected times and in order to get through it, you have to give in. It has been hard to read the meaning, or even attempt at being safe with other humans when I now view the world completely different. I do know however, that the people who show up and feel the pain with me, and who don't disregard my hurt are the people I feel most comfortable being around. I read a quote from one of my favorite websites, Brain Pickings where the author studied the work of Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and PTSD researcher on how bodies and minds converge in the face of trauma, while also discussing how human connection repairs our ability to read danger and safety. Van der Kolk wrote, "Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety. No doctor can write a prescription for friendship and love: These are complex and hard-earned capacities. You don’t need a history of trauma to feel self-conscious and even panicked at a party with strangers — but trauma can turn the whole world into a gathering of aliens."
I must not forget to continue to connect with humans and be part of society while finding meaning in my grief. I am starting to look a little closer into humans as I discover this new world where I must continue to connect and be a part of society, and because I value human capacities in all types of creative work or even science. I have been interested in a movement called Humanism—a philosophy that arose with the thinkers of the Italian Renaissance in the fourteenth century. This philosophy focuses on human beings as the most important in the universe. If I look at life with the view that humans come first, I believe I might have more compassion and empathy towards anything that happens, and as a result could help me to find more meaning in life. Humanists have some suggestions, and I note a few as described in the book, Teach Yourself Humanism by Mark Vernon.
Science and technology offer ways of increasing human well-being and therefore meaning. Promote more thoughts that are worthwhile, such as if life is not good now, there is little sense thinking that there is life after death.
Stories provide a sense of direction, so there is a narrative sense of meaning in life. Meaning is about value and requires wisdom. Stories provide narratives about people and times that address the matters of value and wisdom. Narratives don't apply to everyone equally but they contain similar themes and aspirations that enable us to connect with others in a way that is meaningful.
Humanitarian action could be a source of action but is more demanding. There is so much illness and poverty throughout the world, and somehow if we can do our small part in helping, it provides meaning. To care for others because we are like them, the suffering of another human can be alleviated and is therefore gratifying. Empathy takes us out of ourselves and enables us to see our lives in a wider context.
Religious humanism recognizes that traditional conceptions of God and offer the suggestion of having a more mature relationship with the divine. This way, you can have a radical freedom to be responsible for yourself. In this way, God comes to represent the ideals we have for the best way of life. Living a moral life is to live life fully, to live well, and to live for others. Saying 'yes' to life.
Life is engaging because it is full of wonder. Life is something of an art. Like a painting, that is confined to the frame and constrained by the paint, life is lived well according to what we make of the limited means at our disposal, name ourselves, those with us, and the society in which we live. It is wroth living when individuals strive to know themselves and cultivate a fascination with the world around them.
Another book that can provide good context to this idea is, The Power Of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. I love her view on where we all share a life of depth and significance. There are four views into meaning which are Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling and Transcendence.
Belonging: We all need to find our tribe. To feel understood, recognized, and affirmed by our friends, family members, and romantic partners. We all need to give and receive affection.
Purpose: No matter what you do for a living, find some purpose behind it. You can do this, if not, maybe there is something else in your life that brings it to you. It can be small or big. It can be you taking care of a family member, or doing something at work that doesn't seem relevant, but in the bigger picture it is.
Storytelling: Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone has a right to tell it. The most moving stories are rooted in vulnerability, but not too emotionally raw. Reflect on pivotal moments in your life, and consider how those moments shaped who you are and how your life has unfolded.
Transcendence: "To experience that we have risen above the everyday world to a higher reality. The word "transcend" means "to go beyond" or "to climb." The humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. A brush with mystery--whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in the hospital deliver room--can transform us. When transcendence happens, our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world. The result is that our anxieties about existence and death evaporate, and life finally seems, for a moment, to make sense--which leaves us with a sense of peace and well-being."