Sunday, October 16, 2016

The meaning of life?

One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. 

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

—Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, Washington Square Pressp. 131

Continuing to reread Man's Search for Meaning, I insist every reader of this space ought to get a copy and read it for themselves. Frankl says so many absolutely essential things, in such a simple and uncomplicated way, without the pretensions so often attached to so-called "spiritual" works.

 Our essential task is to discover the meaning of our lives — not "the" meaning of life, which philosophies and spiritual teachings purport to impart, but the meaning of our own lives. 

It's this microscopic insertion of meaning into being, which takes place cell by cell and organism by organism, to which we must attend. 

To this end, I am reminded of a volume of poetry I recently read: all of it poetry purported to impart deep philosophical and spiritual meanings, written by a wide range of poets. Almost all of it, unfortunately, falls prey to this consistent, grandiose belief that we are able to comprehend things on vast scales—and then talk about them. 

Alas.  These theoretically better poets, bedecked with their many publications and awards, repeat the same tired old themes that innumerable less accomplished brethren hammer away at. Such sheet-metal always ends up being beat into mediocre shapes, because that is all it lends itself to. Contemporary poets, novelists, filmmakers and a range of other regurgitaters of popular ideas, philosophies, and mind–bogglings are obsessed with trying to capture vastness and contain it in tiny bottles; what they usually capture instead is embarrassing bombast. 

Not long ago, a poet who asked me for advice about their work received my comment that the cosmos won't fit in a poem; so don't put it in there. 

Poems—like individual lives—are too abbreviated to contain vastness. Whenever faced with the choice between the great and the small, always choose the small, because God and the cosmos are far more often revealed in the small things than in the huge ones (see Meister Eckhart's last words.)  

This particular insight bears a direct relationship to the questions I investigated in the recent series of essays published under the title "...Bacon?" We have to investigate the meaning of life within the context of our own life, within life. Using the external as an interpretive mechanism has validity; but only just so much validity, because the external is a world of generalities, whereas our inward Being is a world of specifics: It determines, specifically who and what we are, before the external circumstances are encountered.

That determination is intimate and immediate, and it is only in the context of our inward self examination that we can know anything about who we are, before the external ever affects us.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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