What is One’s “Meaning”?

To me, one’s meaning is synonymous with one’s purpose, one’s why-I’m-here. But that does not clear much up. One’s meaning, purpose, etc. can take on many different meanings and all I can do is convey my sense of the word. To do this I will begin with what it does not mean to me: A religious person may believe his/her meaning is preordained, set by God at birth, and his/her sole mission is to find that meaning. This, to me, is a terrifying belief, the belief that there is one, single purpose and one must spend his/her life in search it. What if one never finds that meaning? Did he/she fail God? The usual response is that God will guide one to his/her meaning. But what if there is a devilish deceiver who leads those searching for meaning astray? There are serial killers, thieves, etc. Did they find their meaning set by God? Furthermore, it’s an all-eggs-in-one-basket belief: what if it happens that there is not a god? Has one spent his/her life toiling away in search of this meaning that never existed?

Some find meaning by simply being happy—“Do what you love,” people sometimes say. I have a hard time subscribing to this sense of the word, too.  It’s fundamentally self-serving, even if what makes one happy is helping others—helping others is merely a side-effect, just the result of making oneself happy. Should we not spend some time on this earth in the selfless service of others?

People also sometimes say, “You need to make your meaning.” This banality satisfied me, at least for a while. It’s a comforting interim belief. It seems to imply that one can find meaning in anything and because everyone is doing something, everyone can make some sort of meaning. But it seems to also imply that one thing is just as meaningful as the rest. And as I continue to go through life, I seem to find that this is simply not true. One’s job as a sand-pounder is simply not as meaningful, to me, as one’s job as an ER Doctor (not to offend any sand-pounders out there). But this is not to say that an ER doctor is a meaningful career for everyone and that is not to say a sand-pounder is a meaningless career for everyone.

This brings to me to where I sit now on my definition of “meaning.” If meaningfulness were quantifiable, based on level of fulfillment, level of happiness, level of helpfulness, etc., I believe that there would be peak activities (imagine a parabolic graph), meaning that there could be an ideal activity, or many ideal activities for a person—but like I said, these would not be the same for everyone. But these peak activities are fluid and ever-changing; as one’s mindset changes, so do these activities and in this my belief differs from the religious, pre-ordained belief. And it differs from the “make your own meaning” philosophy in that one isn’t truly making meaning. Instead, one is searching for a meaningful activity based on his/her beliefs on what is meaningful instead of attempting to mold and tame his/her beliefs to fit whatever path he/she is on. Lastly, it differs from the “do what makes you happy” belief in that one isn’t just doing what makes him/her happy (although that would be a factor in our meaningfulness calculation). One is, instead, aptly, doing what he/she finds the most meaning in. Thus, I am on a search for these peak activities, although I know full well that I won’t find them. But that does not dissuade me from working my way up the meaning mountain, getting as close as I can to the peak. 

Comment. Please. Change my views on meaning; defend your definition of meaning.

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