What gives life meaning? Why do we get out of bed in the morning rather than pulling the covers over our head and curling up in existential despair? Where are we to look for purposes, goals, things to do?
God or the supernatural is one answer. Deeply religious people believe that meaning flows down from a divine above. The purpose of life isn't made; it is discovered -- via a holy book, holy person, holy revelation.
The source doesn't have to be a personal higher power.
In Eastern religions, karma is considered to be the guiding force which leads us to do stuff: marry this person, choose this job, live in this place. As with God-believers, meaning is manufactured by a transcendent entity and delivered into our psyches, where we mistakenly believe our free will is in control.
Alternatively, thoroughly secular people view meaning as being in our hands. Or rather, minds. The meaning of life isn't given; it is created. What's right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable is up to each of us to decide.
Without an "I," meaning is absent. Only when the thought "I really enjoy writing blog posts" arises is meaning formed within the otherwise meaningless world that surrounds me.
Today, while exercising, I finished listening to a Philosophy Talk podcast of "Nihilism and Meaning." The guest philosopher was Hubert Dreyfus, author of "All Things Shining," a book I blogged about last year most positively.
So while some people surely are drifting aimlessly in a boundless ocean of godless choices, many others believe that they're being propelled along a straight and narrow sea lane with the Supreme Being guiding their course.
I'm familiar with both nautical analogies, which were very real to me when I held fast to them. In college I was an enthusiastic existentialist, devouring Sartre, Camus, and all that existence precedes essence stuff; meaning was to be made by me. Then I embraced an Indian guru; I had faith that my karma and the Master's grace jointly determined everything that happened to me.
Now, I resonate with how "All Things Shining" views a vibrant way of living. After discounting excessive self-confidence as a foundation for one's existence, the authors say:
In contrast with this, a genuine confidence of the sort that seems to have directed Mr. Autrey's actions is driven not by some internal set of thoughts or desires, nor by a calculated set of plans or principles.
Indeed, as in the case of Mr. Autrey, it is experienced as confidence drawn forth by something outside of oneself. It is grounded in the way things actually are, not in the confident person's perhaps self-serving characterization of them. The genuinely confident agent does not manufacture confidence, but receives it from the circumstances.
Listening to Dreyfus discuss his soon-to-be-published book (the podcast dates from January 2010) reminded me of how much sense it makes to follow a middle way between "my fate is in God's hands" and "I'm in total charge of my life."
Dreyfus talked about how the ancient Greeks believed that people could be taken over by a godly inspiration. For example, if Eros turns his attention to you, you're going to fall in love. For sure. Resistance is futile. Might as well embrace Eros and fall freely.
Today, us churchless folk believe as little in the Greek gods as we believe in the God of monotheistic Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Yet Dreyfus still sees a place for a sort of godliness in the meaning of our lives. The "gods" are naturalistic circumstances, though, not supernatural divinities.
Meaning is made continuously through our experiencing of what is happening all around us. As we respond to those circumstances, opening ourselves up to the realities of the present moment, embracing the desires, urges, wants, intentions, and passions bubbling up into our consciousness, we find that meaning is neither given to us, nor produced by us.
It arises naturally when we simply attend to where we are, what is happening, how we feel. Dreyfus and his co-author wrote about a heroic action:
Greatness of this sort is nearly mystical to apprehend. It is characterized by the kind of sustained responsiveness to the situation that the Subway Hero embodied when he leapt onto the tracks. It is unflinching, unhesitating, and unwavering, and it has these certain qualities precisely because the activity flows not from the agent but through him.