What’s it all about?

“A human being requires meaning, a reason for being; something that gives direction to his life. A human being must be able to answer the question ‘Why?’ or ‘What for?’” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Second Vatican Council’s writing Veritatis Splendor speaks of “the obscure riddles of the Human Condition” (50). There are questions that tend to close in on one with the years: Why did God bother to make the world? How does the world function? To what purpose do we exist in that world? What are we here for? What’s the story about? Does it have a plot? Does it all make sense? Does it have any ultimate meaning? Why am I me? Is there an intelligent plan behind all the pieces of my life? Do I have a value beyond time? As we grow older, these questions become more persistent.

One can be audacious giving answers to these questions. One might consider how it sounds for any human being to claim to know God’s will. For a believer, one would be more accurate to admit what St. Paul says about the ways of God being inscrutable: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33)

There’s the way Isaiah puts it: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9).

We want to think that our lives mean something, count as something more than just a momentary blip in the universe. We want to think that there is something more to life than randomness. We want to make sense of our own world.

Here are some negative views offered by some well-known people:

John Paul Sartre: “All existing things are born for no reason, and die by accident. It is meaningless that we are born, it is meaningless that we die.”

Leo Tolstoy: “The more intelligent we are, the less do we understand the meaning of our life, and the more do we see a king of bad joke in our suffering and death.”

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote: “We have not to rejoice, but rather to mourn at the existence of the world, its non-existence would be preferable. It is something which at bottom ought not to be.”

Clarence Darrow: “Life is like a ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.”

There’s Shakespeare’s MacBeth: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There’s Beckett’s characters waiting, waiting endlessly for the never-appearing Godot. And there’s Sisyphus condemned forever to the pointless pushing of that rock.

We want to make sense of our own personal world. There is the fundamental role that an individual plays in making meaning for himself. Frankl called us to realize that life expects something of us. John Henry Newman said: “God has commanded some work of me.” Confucianism places great emphasis upon “knowing the mandate of heaven”—a sense of being chosen to fulfill some transcendent command. God expects something very definite of us.

Carl Jung coined the expression Noogenic Neurosis which involves a loss of the feeling that life is meaningful. The individual sees no purpose in his life. Many people have lost a sense of purpose in their lives. Many realize that they have taken the wrong road. Jung also stated that such a person needed to regain a religious outlook.

I think almost everyone lives for something and wants to belong somewhere, wants to make sense of reality. I expect everyone seeks a cause or purpose to give his life meaning. Almost everyone has an interpretation of human existence. The Existentialist philosophers teach that we create our own meaning; there are no absolutes. There is the miracle of our own personal existence, and each of us plays a part in creating meaning for ourselves. One multi-billionaire stated that his goal was to die with more toys than the next guy.

A friend told me that for him, the meaning of life was to get through life with as much dignity and satisfaction as he could, doing as little harm as possible. Secularists have a materialistic view of human life and try to dodge religious questions.

One of my convictions is that what the earth gives us is often beautiful, but is too poor to satisfy us fully. We are all trying to get from this world more than she can rightly give (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Vatican II). Something is missing.

We have all experienced this to one degree or another. Even in our most satisfying times, we are aware of limitation. No matter how happy our lives are, this feeling of incompleteness or discontent never fades out. Nothing finite ultimately satisfies us. People are hungering for more than this world offers. Various worldly things are offered to give us that fundamental satisfaction, but they never keep their promise.

I think everyone knows what I mean. Everyone carries about inside himself a certain emptiness—a sense that something is missing. Chesterton said, “Even at home, I am homesick.”

C.S. Lewis asserted that the primary purpose of our lives— the reason for our existence on this planet—is to establish a relationship with the Person who placed us here. Until that relationship is established, all of our attempts to attain happiness—our quest for recognition, for money, for power, for the perfect marriage or the ideal friendship, for all that we spend our lives seeking—will always fall short, will never quite satisfy the longing (Armand Nicholi, Jr., C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, p. 104). When 66 years old, the atheist Sigmund Freud spoke of a “strange longing,” thinking there might be a life of quite another kind.

A mother once said to me, “Children are one of the great sources of meaning; they are gifts of God. The only trouble is they’re not God, they are only children. So I became restless again.” As for myself, my Christian religious faith has it that the ultimate structure of reality involves a redemptive participation in the sufferings of Christ, and that we are destined to participate in the divine nature. Our final fulfillment is found in what is called the Beatific Vision of God seen by our risen bodies.

“The glory of God is man fully alive, but the life of man is the vision of God” (St. Irenaeus, cf. Signs, Superstitions, and God’s Plan: The Human Quest for Meaning, Brian Schmisek, Paulist Press).