Monday, 28 December 2020

What do you do when life is meh?

I recently read Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and it made me realise one thing - that my lack of zeal in life isn't because of my past experiences or current predicament but my lack of meaning. 

There was a period of time, after reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, that I became slightly doubtful about whether life in itself has any meaning. Harari argues that "from a purely scientific view, human life has no meaning." From an evolutionary perspective, there was no such thing as the pursuit of meaning until homo sapiens (humans), at some point of time, started to do so. In addition, he argues that the state of happiness is merely a reaction of biochemicals in our body; that regardless of our circumstances, our individual level of happiness would always eventually return to its default level. With these, he concludes that "any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion." I didn't want to live my life based on a delusion and hence, I began to ponder that perhaps, life is really just about earning our keep, eating, drinking and being merry. All is vanity and a striving after wind.

But to what end? I found myself becoming increasingly self-centered and depressed. I realised that when you live life without meaning, pretty much like an animal, all you care about is self-preservation. You're afraid of getting hurt, and you don't let people in because you don't want to give them the power to hurt you. Sometimes, you also forget what kindness looks like. At the same time, you don't really know what you want in life or what you're living for either. You just get by. For me, getting by meant doing my due diligence at work, fulfilling my social obligations, and enjoying my daily cups of coffee and glasses of gin and tonic. But as time went by, life began to feel extremely pointless. And lonely. And there were days that were just so difficult to get by. 

Frankl founded Logotherapy, a type of psychotherapy which argues that "man's search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life." He cites an extensive example of his time in Auschwitz, as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps. He observed that it wasn't the 'fittest' who survived, but the ones that had something to live for, whether it be a person, a duty or a cause. For him, it was the thought of his wife and the profound understanding that suffering gives life meaning - that your circumstances can only go as far as affecting your physical being and that at the end of the day, it is your choice to rise above your circumstances and find a deeper reason to live. 

I was inspired by the fact that someone in a concentration camp had greater zest for life than I do, in my stable career and happy family. It then dawned upon me that it wasn't about my circumstances. For the longest time ever, I have been attributing my pain and sadness to certain decisions that I've made and events that have happened in my life. But really, there's so much more to life than that. In his postscript, titled The Case for a Tragic Optimism, Frankl discusses three aspects of human existence - pain, guilt and death - and how there is potential to find the silver lining in each of them. For guilt (which is what I tend to wrestle with the most), he talks about "deriving the opportunity to change oneself for the better." In simple terms, I should stop dwelling on my mistakes and start focusing on how to become a better person instead.

It took me so long to learn this simple lesson but I guess it's only because I've recently started to find my meaning in life - not anyone's or society's meaning for me but my own meaning in life. 

The key to a lasting sense of fulfilment in life is not that weekend getaway to Bali (which is practically impossible in a lockdown) or the Friday night drinks (which does nothing but gives you a bad hangover the day after) but to be clear of what you are living for.

Harari may (or may not) be right that the pursuit of life's meaning is a social construct but regardless, it has become an essential part of human survival and makes us who we are.


"Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." 

Romans 5:3-4

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