Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Figure Out the Meaning of Life

In times of change, transitional times, I find that it is useful, and sometimes necessary, to re-calibrate my life, re-chart my course you might say. When the way things were going are no longer the way things are, it is like we are living in a different world, one in which the old status quo was merely a legend.

It is amazing how much of who we are rests on our income and position in the society in which we live. So when that particular rug is pulled out from under us, the whole business of living can come into focus.

I have been thinking about this lately, especially in the context of the Stoic daily readings, and the Stoic workshops. There are some definite advantages to following the Stoic path. A lot of discussion has preceded you, and you can dip or dive in at will. Getting involved in the Stoic conversation would be one way of looking at it. However, I have found that this exercise usually runs me up against the Mono-idealists (coined term). 

These folks seem to think that there is one pre-designed, pre-determined great plan and answer to life, the universe, and everything. Some of them wear the familiar garb of the mono-theists (though not all mono-theists are mono-idealists) but I am running into more and more who are dressed in a rainbow of philosophical garments. These range from the classical Stoicists (not practicing Stoics, but rather academics interested only in ancient Stoicism, usually from a specific period) to various ancient religious re-constructionists, and may even include some neo-pagans, hells bent on unearthing the ultimate meaning of all things, convinced that it exists.

It seems to me that these good folk (and many of them do genuinely good [aka virtuous] work in the name of their system of beliefs), while the differ widely in their approach, share a single framework. The seem to believe that one size fits all, the true way is static and we are tasked to find it and pin ourselves to it.

To my mind, there is an elephant in the room that we all seem to be ignoring. It is the actual human race, how we are born, how we grow, how we die. We don't exists by fiat, but rather something more closely resembling consensus. Studies have indicated that as collectives, we need each other to become something approximating human beings. Cutting off a single person from the group before the formation is complete results in everything from mental to actual physical deformities. We define what being human is together, by living together, communicating, supporting and destroying each other. 

Like all life, there is no ultimate 'template' of what a perfect X is. What is a perfect flower, or a perfect rock or a perfect star? What is a perfect human? The actual potential for humanity that exists in us individually is tested and brought out through our interactions with each other, through the languages and thought patterns we acquire, the habits of body and mind and heart that we adopt, reject, or invent. 

For me, this is the new Sage, the mythical perfect 'me.' Not a goal to achieve, but a direction to set. What is my personal potential? How did it get there, how was it set? A complex combination of chance, history, heredity, society and mystery likely had their hand in it all. 

Here is the point though. I can't really explore my potential alone. I need others to ask questions I haven't conceived of, share experiences I haven't dreamt of, and provide support and resources I could never manage on my own. And others need the same from me. We are all connected, through language, culture, and biology.

There is no single answer to the meaning human life, because there is no single human life. We are complex web of dreams and desires, hopes and fears, choice and potential. The only way we can figure out what the best kind of life is will be by more sharing, not less, by more exposure to the true depth of human experience, both the joy and the suffering. Only then can we start to get an idea of what we, as a species, are truly capable of. 

But here is the caveat. It is a living quest, and like the Sage, a direction not a goal. As each generation steps upon the stage, it will be up to them to take up the conversation, learn and challenge, adopt and reject.

In short, we will find meaning in our lives only when we share ourselves, our minds and hearts, meaningfully; we will learn wisdom when we engage in the Great Conversation.