The human search for meaning.
Human life is an existential crisis. We do what we can to avoid it. We try to ignore it, outsource it, delegate it, divert our attention from it or deny it exists.
But they’re all feeble and futile attempts to avoid the unassailable law of our being, the essence of being human.
The crisis is created by the intersection of existential truths, things we know with certainty. Existential truths are undeniable and unavoidable. If you stop believing in them, nothing changes. The truth is unimpressed.
Four existential truths
The first and foundational existential truth is the conscious self exists. I am. This is undeniable and undoubtable. We can’t doubt or deny the existence of our conscious self without encountering a contradiction. To deny or doubt, something must already exist to do the denying and the doubting.
The second thing we know is our conscious self transcends matter. We are the subject; matter is our object. If this wasn’t true, we couldn’t classify all the things we’re observing, all the things which aren’t us, in the universal category we call matter.
We couldn’t plan any action. Because to plan the future we must be able to survey the world as something distinct from ourselves. We must view it as it is now, and as it could be, and then act to bring that future into existence.
The third thing we know is we have inner autonomy, freedom of thought and will. We can say free will is an illusion, but it’s impossible to act that way. The very act of denying free will is a choice. Our free will is an undeniable existential truth.
The fourth thing we know is that death is certain, and suffering is unavoidable. We can’t find lasting happiness in this world, we can’t stay here. Eventually, the body becomes inert, the conscious self which animates the body is gone and the matter in the body decays.
Together these four truths create the human search for meaning. Knowing these four things causes us to try and discover our origins. We want to understand why we exist and our place in the universe. We want to know what happens to our conscious self when our body dies.
We search for answers to these questions about the meaning of our lives. In that search we discover the next existential truth. It collides with the others and creates the crisis.
We discover we don’t have enough information to know the answers, but we must choose anyway.
None of us have any way to know the answers with certainty. We can’t even know the answer with a confidence beyond reasonable doubt. Despite the lack of information, we must choose an answer because these are practical questions about how to live. Before we do anything, we need to know the goal we’re trying to achieve. Only then can we choose the actions needed to achieve the goal.
Our choice is more difficult in modern times because we have access to a smorgasbord of answers from human cultures spanning thousands of years. There is an answer to suit every taste.
Humans are at their most creative when it comes to origin stories; suggestions about the right way to live; and confident declarations about what lies in store for us beyond the grave. There’s no shortage of answers to choose from and no shortage of people convinced their answer is the right one.
It’s popular in the modern secular society to think we can avoid the crisis by saying the answer is we can’t know. But that isn’t an answer, that’s a description of the problem. In our secular society we live as if there are no ultimate concerns, we replace them with a focus on concerns about this life.
This is often justified by the fact we have insufficient information to know the answer. But we still choose to live as if it was true there are no ultimate concerns. If that is true, it’s also true we cease to exist at the death of the body.
The idea there is no afterlife has the same scarcity of evidence as any other answer. In practical terms, to live a secular life is to live as if the no afterlife answer is true.
What we can learn from the crisis
If we follow the implications of these truths to their logical conclusion, we find our inability to know the answers is a necessary condition for humans to be truly free. If the intellect can’t give us a definitive answer, our only option is to choose what we decide is the best way to live and the meaning we give to our lives.
It’s the lack of information to confirm any answer beyond doubt that allows us the freedom to decide the ideals and values we live by. We are the judge of which values and principles are the most important.
In a sense we become the creators of our own reality. By creating the meaning of our lives, we act under the assumption some interpretative framework is true. We choose that framework, assume it is true and real, and then we act accordingly. Our choice makes it the reality under which we live our lives.
The hero’s journey
This crisis is also a valuable opportunity. The mythologist Joseph Campbell analysed the myths of human cultures and outlined their commonality. In modern society a myth is misunderstood as a story that isn’t true.
But mythology isn’t communicating literal objective truth, it’s a story containing existential truth. Myths are inspirational visions designed to motivate us to live our best lives. They inspire us to fulfill our highest potential.
Campbell called this common archetype of human mythology the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey begins with a problem. The hero tries to ignore or deny the problem. They refuse to act because of fear about what lies ahead, and lack of confidence in their ability to solve the problem and overcome the challenge.
The hero then meets a mentor who convinces them they must accept the challenge and solve the problem, because they are the only person who can. This inspires the hero to accept the challenge and take a leap of faith. The hero crosses the threshold of doubt and commits to the challenge.
On the journey the hero meets many tests and trials. The tests force the hero to draw upon hidden skills and inner resources. They enter into a life and death struggle. They appear to fail, but by overcoming their greatest fear or their character weakness, they finally emerge victorious.
The hero then starts the journey home, but they are irrevocably changed. Their return is a rebirth or resurrection. They encounter tests on the return journey which show the changes in their character the quest produces. Their inner self is transformed.
This recurrent plot-line of human mythology is perennially popular because this is the story of human existence. We must all make the metaphorical journey to Mt Doom.
We don’t make this journey once and then relax in eternal beatitude, our life is a continuous series of heroic journeys. Life is a succession of challenges we must overcome and which mold our character and give us strength to face even greater challenges.
A hero is someone noted for their courageous acts and nobility of character. You are the hero of your own life, the character cast into the leading role. You are free to make of it what you will.
The inner transformation
We can eternally debate if an afterlife exists and if it does what happens there. We can endlessly speculate about how our actions in this life affect that existence after death.
But no one really knows the answer. The intellect can’t cross the threshold. Death is an impenetrable black box.
However, we can be confident the only thing that could survive death is your inner conscious self. That thing we all know as “Me”. We know our body stays here. We know our possessions remain behind. The only asset we can take with us is the type of person we are.
That person is the character we’ve crafted throughout our life. We’ve created it with a continual series of choices we make in reaction to the world and the plot-line we’ve been cast into.
If anything is eternal, it’s the conscious self. That’s the thing which persists through time. Our self transcends the timeline of our life. We remember what we’ve done in the past and plan what we’ll do in the future. Our presence defines the present moment, we are the constant element in the relentless progress of time.
And that character is in your control, because you are free. You create your character by your choices. You choose what you will value by focusing your time and energy on the things you decide are important.
Creation of a hero
We create a heroic character when we choose honesty even though deception is more profitable. When we choose peace even though violence gives a tactical advantage. When we choose kindness even though exploitation is cheaper.
Being an honorable person in this world appears to come with some cost. To be authentic, honorable deeds must be their own reward. We must value them for their own sake, for their inherent value. To acquire anything of value in this world we must pay some price. Honorable deeds are no exception.
If someone’s honesty is authentic, they will choose honesty even if no one would discover their dishonesty, or there is profit in dishonesty, or a cost for honesty. They will value honesty for itself, not for some other end that honesty can produce.
Faith is not a dirty word
Each of us must live by faith or trust. We must trust in certain ideals and be true to them. We have no other choice. Our only choice is what we decide to have faith in. Faith isn’t an intellectual choice; it’s an existential choice.
Faith is an authentic expression of the type of person you are. Your faith is a recognition that living and acting in harmony with your chosen ideals is the ultimate fulfillment of your existence. Those ideals are your salvation.
They are the things you honor and revere by giving them the highest importance. Those ideals are the principles in which you invest your own self.
We can live as if we are nothing more than clever animals who excel at surviving. Or we can live as if we are of a higher nature, a divine nature that transcends mere existence and values the qualities of that existence. The way we sustain our existence is of ultimate importance.
This attitude allows us to transcend the lack of information about the afterlife. The purpose which motivates our journey becomes the focus. The destination is a continual process of the evolution of character, an endless striving for perfection.
If our journey continues after death our direction has been set and death is only the next step in the journey. If death is the end of our existence, we’ve lost nothing and we’ve elevated our mundane existence beyond a brutal competition for survival. The meaning of the cosmos may be beyond our humble knowledge, but we played the role of the hero whatever turns out to be true.