“One great question underlies our experience whether we think about it or not,” said His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, “What is the purpose of life?” For millennia, philosophers as well as common people have pondered this question. Various possibilities have emerged, such as the Biblical claim that the purpose of life is to serve God, the Dalai Lama’s belief that it is the pursuit of happiness, and Douglas Adams’ memorable assertion in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that the purpose of life, the universe, and everything is 42. So far, no one has discovered a definitive, universally accepted answer, but the inability to provide one has done nothing but encourage humans to continue this quest.
Human beings are unique in that we harbor an inherent desire to examine our actions and the events of our lives in the context of a bigger picture. James Carroll, a columnist for The Boston Globe, writes that we possess “the narrative imagination, which is concerned with linkage and causality.” We perceive life’s events as a narrative, our own specific story complete with an acute awareness of the past, present, and future simultaneously. As humans, we prefer to view each moment in the context of every other moment, a second sandwiched between all the seconds of the past and all the seconds yet to come.
To illustrate the way we operate, Carroll compares us to an analog clock: “We are in the analogic realm of time where the connection between events is what matters.” We automatically connect our pasts and our futures, just as we do when looking at an analog clock, because that connection matters to us. We live contentedly only because we perceive the different events in our lives in relation to each other. Susanne Antonetta, writer for Orion Magazine, quotes linguist Derek Bickerton in maintaining that our consciousness is evidence that we have been released from “the prison of immediate experience… into infinite freedoms of space and time.”
Humans, uniquely, are able to comprehend the entire scope of history, successfully stringing events together and determining their relationships. Our sophisticated consciousness allows us to view our lives in the context of civilization’s history. Our present takes its meaning from our past, but our ability to recognize time forces us to consider our own mortality.
The awareness of our mortality, our ability to comprehend the fact that each of us will someday disappear, drives us to find meaning or purpose in our lives. Jon Hamilton, a correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk, writes that this
quest for ‘something more’ comes directly from our awareness of our own life story… Humans have a unique awareness that our lives are stories that begin when we’re born and end when we die. And because we know we’re going to die… we are not satisfied with merely surviving day to day. We want our personal story to mean something.
If we did not understand that our lives would someday end, we would have no drive to mold them into something meaningful; we would have no urge to seek the meaning of why we are here or the purpose of our existence. It is the consciousness of death that sets us apart.
Some may argue that consciousness of mortality is not unique to humans. Because we cannot fully understand the mental processes of animals, we cannot infer that consciousness of mortality is limited to our species. Who is to say that animals do not comprehend death? They very well may, and at times they act as if they do, but the more important question is whether or not animals understand they themselves will one day die. Matthew Cobb, a senior lecturer on animal behavior at the University of Manchester, explains this important distinction:
Certainly some animals act as if they understand death… elephants fondle the bones of other elephants, and mother primates can cling to a dead infant for days… but none of these acts mean that these creatures conceive of death the way humans do… A lifeless corpse of a conspecific could just engender curiosity, and a gorilla mother’s clinging to her dead baby could reflect maternal instinct gone awry. And even if animals do feel a kind of mourning, that doesn’t mean that they know that they themselves will one day pass on.
It is obvious that animals have some conception of death, but the fact that they can recognize death when it occurs does not mean that they understand the transitory nature of their own existence. Unlike other animals, humans have the ability to recognize our existence as fleeting, and it is this knowledge that hurls us into a quest for meaning.
In the grand scheme of things, to our own minds, we “seem sorrowfully trivial, and the creature of a day, and such a short and paltry day, too,” Mark Twain wrote in his short story, The Mysterious Stranger. This snapshot of time that we have been granted, this blip of life, must mean something, we feel. Although it is impossible for us to actually determine the meaning we seek, the act of searching, itself, serves as a mechanism for remaining sane.
Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist, argued that humankind must “have a frame of orientation which permits him to organize a consistent picture of the world” as a foundation for purposeful actions. Without an understanding of context, humankind would wither. Fromm suggests that this search for meaning is, in fact, a coping mechanism, a means by which humans tackle their apparently lowly existence: “The human being… would indeed go mad if he did not find a frame of reference which permitted him to feel at home in the world in some form and to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation, and uprootedness.” Unwilling to accept the notion that we are only meager footnotes in earth’s history, we strive to discover meaning in our world, rather than accept the radical brevity and insufficiency of human life.
History is dotted with records of our attempts to establish meaning. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian myths were all invented to serve the same purpose: to provide some explanation for our human condition. Karen Armstrong, author of A Short History of Myth, writes, “As soon as people became aware of their own mortality… they created stories that gave their lives meaning.” These stories, in turn, became a support system to fall back upon when the world did not make sense.
Our consciousness, unfortunately, leaves us susceptible to bouts of despair. Myths and other methods of determining meaning were designed to combat our anguish: “From the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value” (Armstrong). Understanding our own mortality inevitably coincides with the intimation that we are inadequate. We have developed methods, including myths, of battling those feelings. Many who reconsider myths from a present-day vantage point dismiss them as fantastical, mere vehicles for “opting out of this world,” when in fact they “enable us to live more intensely in it” (Armstrong).
Without myths, without our ability to make sense of things, we would be paralyzed by the realization that we are practically nothing, that, in the words of the noted astronomer, Carl Sagan, our self-importance is only imagined, our “privileged place in the universe” a delusion. These coping mechanisms and quests for meaning allow us to ignore the crushing truth of the vastness of the universe; they enable us to flourish in the context of our lives. In order for us to successfully survive, we are programmed to seek out and understand what came before us, how we fit into the present, and most importantly, what will remain after we are gone.
This need to determine meaning characterizes humankind and distinguishes us as a species. The search for meaning permeates every aspect of our lives; it frames our existence. This search itself provides comfort in a world of chaos, a method for keeping us sane. It is an innate part of who we are and its function is integral to our continued survival. If we dwelled on the knowledge that we are blips in the history of the universe, it would drive us insane. No other animal shares this fate. Our quest for purpose defines what it means to be human.
Author: Emily Greffenius