The ‘Vital’ Discovery that Reveals the Meaning of Life
Written by Meng Zhang
There’s nothing quite like grief to kickstart an existential quest. Or, depending on your state of mind, an existential crisis.
When my mother died, I fell into the ages-old trap of looking for an answer to the meaning of life. Trapped and puzzled by my own thoughts, I started to read books that probe the human mind and argue against subjectivity in favour of a more rational, reality-based approach.
What I gradually came to realise is that, when navigating something like grief or childhood traumas, it’s far too easy to become myopic and ruminate about unhappy thoughts. That’s just how we’re programmed.
We humans are egocentric in the way we analyse our own thoughts, often assuming that every fleeting thought we have is valid just because it materialises in our mind. Much of what runs through our constantly chattering mental process, however, is gibberish. Or trivial nonsense disguised as something more significant. The uncomfortable reality is that our internal commentary can be irrational, highly skewed, distorted and, more often than we’d care to recognise, just plain wrong.
Could the anguish I was feeling at the time of my mother’s death be remedied by this realisation? Would it help me cope?
I decided that the best way to escape my own narrow subjective sphere was to try to become more objective in the way I viewed the mind and body. With no clear plan and in a pretty haphazard way, I consumed everything I could find about mental health, the biology of the brain, psychology and the latest developments in neuroscience.
More and more of my free time was spent devouring a menu of random scientific papers, Ted Talks, rigorous academic texts, and anything else that I thought might educate me along the way. Clearly it was an amateur pursuit, but I found it a comfort.
Somehow, pondering the meaning of life begins with a bleak assertion: that ultimately, our purpose is for the genes we carry to propagate.
To put this idea into the stark words of Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The Selfish Genes’, “we are survival machines – individuals, families, and species are merely robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
As emotional, social and sometimes spiritual creatures, many of us find this notion hard to swallow. But if we go back far enough to the hunter-gatherer age, or to millions of years before that, our primate ancestors had only two primary concerns: basic everyday survival and the continuation of our species. Things come into even sharper focus when we go back further in the evolutionary past. As single-cell organisms, we had an incredibly clear purpose.
Eat. Try not to be eaten. Mate.
As we evolved, and our group size expanded, knowledge of our surroundings deepened. Consequently, certain parts of our brain adapted to create complex emotions, feelings and analytical faculties that we used to live and coexist in the modern world. In turn, these cerebral capacities led us to more sophisticated activities.
But then, somewhere along the line, we became more intellectually curious. Collectively, through communities and societies, we started to imbue the most existential questions with values and a sense of moral ecology. The meaning of life was assigned values such as honour, chivalry, piety, self-awareness, liberty, self-expression and countless other things.
Yet no matter how hard we’ve tried to embody these values – as a loyal knight, a pious apostle, a billionaire entrepreneur, a civil rights campaigner, a charity worker or a starving artist – it was never more than someone’s attempt to answer the economic and ideological constitution of the times.
Indeed, despite all these individual and collective efforts, the fundamental purpose of our species remained the same. The meaning of life is about survival – unless of course you go down the path set by best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari who concluded that there is no real purpose at all.
“As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose,” he wrote.
Understandably, this is a very bleak picture for anyone who cares to find the meaning of one’s own life or to explore the significance of their everyday actions.
As if this were not despondent enough, the nature of the modern world can exacerbate the situation. As many of us jettison from our place of birth to new lands and unfamiliar cultures, we adopt different values and hear competing, often contradictory voices ascribing meaning to our lives.
While this can certainly be enriching, the noise it sometimes creates can also be troubling. Unbearable, at times.
In the harsh light of these undeniable truths, why then don’t we all fall into a deep depression and confess that life is fundamentally meaningless? Or at least cast doubt on the conventional system that assigns meaning beyond mere survival?
Take the way you’re interpreting the words you’re reading right now. How they might impact your views on the meaning of life depends on your perspective. But your perspective is not a static representation of who you are. It is who you are right here, right now.
Our individual perspective evolves over the span of our lifetime and is altered by the places we live, work and visit. Therefore, how we try to unravel big questions like the meaning of life depends on the intersection of time and space.
On the axis of time, we find it difficult to picture ourselves as a mere point in a continuum of millions of years. To do it constantly as we go about our daily lives is even harder.
We may be able to do so in especially reflective moods or when we experience milestone moments, but our consciousness doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate the whole history of our species from our origin to the present day. And this is probably no small mercy.
Finding meaning is a lot easier within a shorter timespan because we’re immersed in our very immediate and personal timeframe, living through days, months and years.
Fortunately, there is more than one way to perceive time. On the grand scale, time does seem linear with a theoretical beginning and end point – for both the universe and time itself. When we perceive time as linear, meaning is evaluated based on this directional, one-off journey.
The problem with this understanding of time is that our lives can seem like nothing more than a flash in this grand scale. What feels more meaningful, however, is to view time as cyclical.
The cyclical view of time is evident in many cultural settings and schools of philosophy, as it provides a more easily accessible framework. According to the philosopher Zhuangzi, who lived in the 4th Century BCE, “everything disappears and reappears, full and empty alternate, every end is also a beginning.”
If an end does indeed bring about a beginning, then the meaning of our lives can be sought within their own cycle and generation after generation. “Growth and decline, fullness and emptiness, end and beginning, here is the cycle of the world,” Zhuangzi wrote.
“In this way must be understood the great task that looms to each one, and the universal order that presides over all beings.”
Things get even more complicated on the axis of space.
Searching for universal meaning across cultures and borders on a map is very demanding. Since we are all deeply embedded in a culture or cultures of our immediate surroundings, it is difficult to maintain a global perspective because our brain struggles to construct the wider cultural context.
What’s more, values formed in one culture can diminish across cultural borders, and distinctive shades of meaning within another culture sometimes appear blurred and fuzzy through a wider cultural lens.
I’ve experienced this first-hand along my own migration from China to Europe and beyond. “Are you forgetting your values? Remember who you are!”, my grandpa implored in letter after letter, whenever he sensed something “different” in me. The more that time passed, the more I found myself tangled up in two different value systems – and the more he felt a distance creeping up between us.
As much as it has been the making of me, it has been a struggle adapting to new cultures, moulding my identity and carving out an existence based on reconciled values. It’s a never-ending process. Just when I think the struggle might be nearing an end, I am reminded that it is not.
Nevertheless, proximity can have a disproportionate impact on our perceptions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once reportedly told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in [countries far away from you].”
In other words, finding meaning is easier in the limited scope of our own little village than it is through the broader context of the global village. The return of populism reminds us that we haven’t been able to fully shake this uncomfortable perspective – neither in politics nor in ordinary life.
Inevitably, our personal conduct will be informed – in part, at least – by the responsibilities that are specific to our immediate environment, where our rights, duties, values and sense of meaning are anchored.
As Julian Baggini puts it in his book ‘How the World Thinks’, “to be purely universal is to inhabit an abstract universe too detached from the real world; even the universal aspiration has to be rooted in something more particular.” More often than not, it is rooted in our own hyper-personal context.
Relatedness and relativity also bind us to our surroundings. While space has become a theoretical abstraction in modern physics, it is a concrete reality in human culture. Nothing exists purely as a point on the map. Instead, everything stands in relation to everything else.
Human connectivity is no different. We are all deeply anchored in our connectedness with one another and with the natural environment, both of which shape our perceptions of meaning. Perhaps this explains what Confucius meant when he said: “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbours.”
Confucianist perspectives place the meaning of life in the context of human relationships. A person’s character is formed by their relationships with parents, siblings, a spouse, friends and social roles.
This must be why I felt I lost a part of myself when my mother died. The part of me that existed within our mother-daughter relationship seemed to evaporate once she was no longer in the world to embody it.
On the other hand, losses such as this helped me uproot myself from the culture I was born to, and compelled me to form new friendships and connections with new surroundings that ultimately breathed new meaning into my life.
There is a paradox to this quest among quests. The meaning of life is an elusive product of the widest expanses of time and space, yet our search for it is limited to the tiniest intersection of time and space in our own humble existence.
There is no way to objectively pinpoint this intersection either, since it depends on how we consciously grasp and perceive our experiences. For example, an action that brings immediate benefits might be detrimental over a longer timeframe. Meanwhile, a purposeful life in one context might become completely futile when the context changes.
Even if the millions of years and a multitude of cultures could be conjured up at will in our minds, we wouldn’t necessarily discover the meaning we seek. Besides, we don’t exist theoretically; we exist in our embodied reality.
All our bodily pains, emotions and senses are hyper local, steeped in the here and now, and they drag us back from whenever and wherever we are to the immediate present reality.
You might be on a journey with me right now contemplating the ultimate meaning of life, when suddenly out of nowhere, a thought pops into your head about a delicious meal, or an unpaid bill. These unannounced thoughts can abruptly change your focus: a pain in your body, a rumbling stomach, angst about an unfinished assignment, lingering regrets or a missed opportunity for promotion… by now you may have completely forgotten what you were just reading about.
It is because of the human propensity to be consumed by what is close to us, that we are told to take a step back; to see the wood for the trees, so as to free ourselves from myopic concerns and from being embroiled in things which lose meaning once we care to take a broader view.
Yet once the earth looks like a dot in the universe and time seems endless, we are just as lost.
Contemplating the ultimate meaning of life is like pondering the theoretical physics of a black hole. It can seem distant and less relevant. But interestingly, it was Dawkins – the man who discovered “the selfish genes” – who drew some comfort from this.
“Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course, we don't; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions.”
Is the meaning of life, therefore, found somewhere between looking not too closely, yet, not too far away?
We are biologically built to gravitate towards a more immediate meaning of life, one that is purposefully carried out through everyday actions via roles in the family, at work and the wider community. These smaller components of the grand purpose of life, these fractional parts of the whole meaning system, are what keeps us going.
So in case one day, after reading Sapiens, The Selfish Genes, or The Brief History of Time, you feel truly depressed because you recognise that you are nothing but atoms and molecules existing in a universe irrevocably moving towards heat death, you can take comfort in the knowledge that this feeling won’t last long either. Life will soon present you with an immediate distraction that will help.
Won’t reality just drag you back to the same unpleasant state of mind once the mist of the distraction lifts? It may feel that way, but the mind can sometimes work like a boomerang. The journey of the boomerang is curved, not linear.
My grandma used to tell me that the search for answers doesn’t always lead you down a straight path. She preferred to visualise it like an upward spiral. It might make you feel confusion and disorientation in the process, she said, but this is because the final goal is always elusive. So, you should persist, even if toward the end you feel as if you’re heading back to where you started. You won’t.
“Once you arrive, you’ll see you’ve transcended your old self, you’ve become wiser and enlightened. This seemingly circular journey you took is the process of Zen,” she explained.
True meaning is elastic and depends on our perspective. I do of course accept the scientific truth that we are a vehicle for our genes, and I do acknowledge that our basic survival and reproductive instincts were inherited from our brainless primordial ancestors.
However when I look at how fast cells divide, how vigorous microbes multiply, how cancer cells fight epic microscopic wars with immune cells; how certain single cell organisms colonise and expand in unstoppable ways; and how each tiny species devises ingenious ways to proliferate, I can’t help but marvel at the nature and the fundamentality of life – to exist and exist prosperously.
“Live in the moment.” This simple concept – our rudimentary will to stay alive – often touched me as I pondered the meaning of life. Could there be wisdom in this seemingly trite phrase after all?
All organisms, no matter how simple or how complicated, must play the game set by the universe. Bacteria, humans and everything in between must either exist or disappear.
Yet something far more nuanced emerges out of this extreme, binary endeavour. Before we disappear, many of us are confronted with a choice that is less stark but no less significant.
While we exist, do we wither or pursue vitality?
If choosing to cherish existence helps us to strive for vitality, then isn’t that a good vantage point to search for meaning? And if vitality is a tenet of life then I, for one, choose to stay vital.