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The question of the meaning of life


Published in

El Diario Montañés

Gerardo Castillo

School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

The question of the meaning of life has been reiterated in the history of Western thought. And there is no lack of those who in all ages have proclaimed the meaninglessness of life. Also those who consider that the meaning of life is the pleasure of the senses as an end in itself: hedonists live to enjoy pleasures, trying to avoid pain. To this must be added a society permeated by a disbelief and skepticism derived from existentialism. The latter maintains that the combination of scientific and moral thinking is insufficient to understand human existence. 

No less influential is the thought of Nietzsche, for whom life only makes sense constructed by each individual from his appetence and will to power. In his work 'The Gay Science', Friedrich Nietzsche says: "God is dead. And we have killed him. The loss of God was devastating because it meant the loss of a whole system of values and beliefs. This ethical vacuum led to the irruption of nihilism and the rise of totalitarianism during the 20th century, linked to the greatest atrocities committed by man.

For many people today, influenced by Nietzsche's thesis , what happens in the world is the effect of chance. As a consequence, we live in a solitary world that is alien to us, driven by what Albert Camus called "the absurd". But since in this absurd existence closed to a better and eternal world there is pain and suffering, living becomes intolerable and we are forced to find a plausible way out. The will to meaning is proper and common to the human condition. It is not enough for us to live; we want to live a meaningful life, one that is worthwhile, that has value in itself.

When a human being experiences that his life has value, has meaning, he experiences that his life is valuable and feels happy. However, when he perceives that his life is empty, when he is not fulfilled by what he does, when he feels that nothing he says or does has any value in itself, he experiences that his life is tedious, irrelevant, completely sterile. Then he suffers what Viktor Frankl calls the existential void.

The will to meaning is man's primary motivation. People desire and seek to discover values worthy of living and dying for. Viktor Frankl was able to survive (physically and psychically) in a Nazi concentration camp by clinging to the fact that his family was still waiting for him. That gave his life meaning every day. Some of his fellow prisoners could not stand it and ended up committing suicide. For them, life had no meaning. In plenary session of the Executive Council concentration camp before 38 people he said the following: "If you know the reason for your existence you will be able to endure any status, no matter how painful it may be. We are faced with a challenge, the challenge to survive. It does not matter that we expect nothing from life. What really matters is what life expects from us". Frank later recounted his experience in 'Man's Search for Meaning'. He invites us to find a purpose and meaning in our existence, and teaches us the importance of inner freedom, resilience and hope in times of adversity. A similar challenge is that of philosopher Pablo F. Curbelo: "Perhaps life has no fixed meaning. But accepting the absurdity of life, its meaninglessness, poses the challenge of finding the beauty that grows, silently, on the sill of life, on the road of our existence".

The human being aspires by nature to happiness, to good, to love and knowledge, in Degree infinite; but he cannot reach it by himself. For this reason, the crisis of meaning cannot be faced unless we turn to the transcendent dimension. What really gives meaning to life, what makes it an experience worth living, is love. The human being is made to love, this is his inherent purpose, so he can only fill his life with meaning if he is able to give love and receive it.