By Douglas Anele
In a nutshell, their existentialist interpretation of the human condition led to the depressing conclusion that life is meaningless and absurd. Even so, although Camus and Sartre recommended heroic defiance in the face of existential absurdity, the strong nihilistic flavor of their writings is not suitable in our contemporary world which urgently requires that go beyond existential nihilism and construct meaning for our lives, both as individuals and as members of the global community, to promote knowledge, love, kindness, solidarity and brotherly feeling among the more than seven billion inhabitants of this planet within the context of environmental sustainability.
In my opinion, the main reason why existentialists argue for the meaninglessness or absurdity of life is because they fell into the error of thinking that the question concerning the true meaning of a person’s life must be posed and answered in abstract or general terms, which immediately suggests that it is either fixed beforehand by some transcendental being (God) or that such a meaning must be a single overarching goal common to humanity. Sartre failed to realize that his dictum “existence precedes essence” entails that the meaning of life differs from person to person, from moment to moment, from day to day. Once a human being is born, the possibility for constructing meaning and carrying out a specific vocation or concrete mission in life which demands fulfillment is thereby created.
Each situation in life is a challenge or problem for a human being to resolve by deploying the productive human powers domiciled in him or her. Thus, there is need for a paradigm shift in our approach to the question of the meaning of life: instead we should begin to understand that everyone is questioned by life, and each person must answer for his or her own life.
We are ultimately responsible for our own life despite the fact that none of us was consulted before we were born nor given the opportunity to choose the circumstances of our birth. Now, just as we are utterly responsible for our own individual lives, we are also responsible for our own death. This means that no one can die for someone else because the phenomenon of death cannot be shifted from one person to another.For instance, even if a devoted follower of someone slated for execution offers to die in his stead and the request was granted, it simply means that the condemned man’s death has been postponed for the moment and the substitute actually died his own death. It follows that the Christian dogma of Jesus dying for humanity is a delusion since each human being will die at some point and the idea of personal immortality is an expression of the unrealistic belief in life after death.
Although the old question of the meaning of life in general is a red herring, one can reasonably inquire into the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. In his work, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl identifies three routes for discovering the meaning of life. The first one is by achieving something through creative action or activity. Every human being has the potential to do something or participate in actions that improve himself and the society. Therefore, devotion to creative activities is satisfying and enriching; it is one of the most reliable means of attaining happiness. Secondly, experiencing truth, goodness and beauty makes life meaningful. At their best, workers in the temple of knowledge find life meaningful by devoting themselves to the pursuit of truth.
Many scientists and philosophers have testified that the single-minded search for truth has given their lives a meaningfulness they could not have attained in any other way. This is corroborated by the exquisite joy that accompanies any genuine discovery. The unceasing desire to live a moral life, to help those in need and alleviate suffering has been one of the most powerful motivating forces in human progress since the dawn of civilization. The exemplary lives of late Tai Solarin and Mother Theresa, to cite just two examples, indicate the extent to which the desire to do good can add exquisite meaning to life, especially at a period in history when selfishness and morbid acquisitiveness seem to be swamping our innate capacity for humane living.
The experience of beauty and love is one of the strongest reasons for the continuation of life. Whether inadmiration of the wonders of nature or a work of art, together with the tender experience of giving and receiving live, no reasonable person will deny that these things give meaning to life. Life without the experience of beauty and love is hellish. Aesthetic appreciation allows us to enjoy the sublime in nature and artistic creations, whereas love permits individuals to penetrate the psychological walls that alienate them, thereby enabling lovers to grasp the essential traits in the beloved. People often confuse sex with love, which is a big mistake. Sex without love can never lead to fulfillment because the latter justifies, and even sanctifies, the former. Sex is merely a vehicle of love: it is a mode of expressing that experience of psychic intimacy designated by the word “love.”
The third way for approaching the meaning of life in its specificity is suffering. In Nigeria today the quantum of suffering is so great that a lot of people are beginning to lose hope in life; they are not sure whether their lives have any meaning at all. We are lucky that our country is not among the locations on earth prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, hurricanes and so on. Sadly, the degree of manmade suffering has increased exponentially since 1984 due mainly to incompetent leadership. Suffering in Nigeria is largely manmade.
Still, many people are suffering because of situations that are out of their control, such as sudden misfortune in business, debilitating disease and the tragic loss of parents, spouses, relatives and friends. But no matter the kind of suffering we are going through, we can still distill some meaning out of it. Every human being in a position to alleviate the suffering of another person should do so. However, when the situation is such that we cannot do anything about it, we can still turn adversity into a triumph, our predicament into an achievement. That we can change out attitude to suffering positively by extracting meaning from it does not mean that suffering is necessary for finding meaning.
According to Frankl, meaning is possible even in spite of suffering, provided, of course, that the suffering is unavoidable. If the suffering is avoidable, the reasonable thing to do is to remove its cause. Unnecessary suffering benefits no one: it is masochistic rather than heroic.
Given the increasingly dominant materialism all over the world nowadays, it would appear that the youthconsider making money their most important project in life. Yet, a significant number of people would consider as priority finding a purpose or meaning to their lives. This is consistent with what we said earlier about the necessity of finding an object of devotion, something to devote our lives to, after humans have transcended the instinctive stage to the stage of self-consciousness, rationality and creative imagination. As a result, the primary motivational force in humans is not the will to power or pleasure, although these are powerful indeed and have contributed in shaping the course of human history, but the will to meaning. In fact, the craving for power or pleasure can be interpreted as a poor response to the question of meaning.
Because the unceasing quest for meaning in our lives is a uniquely human attribute, it is important for our own growth that we find good models to help us in the search for meaning. It is convenient to do this by using “decent people” as our reference point. Nevertheless, we can always set the bar higher by emulating the extraordinary men and women who are always in the minority and whose lives testify to the incredible capacity of human beings for goodness. As the philosopher Spinoza said in his Ethics, everything great is as difficult to realize as it is rare to find. Each one of us has the ultimate responsibility to give meaning to our lives that would make us better. Concluded.