“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”
-Jean Paul Sartre
Existentialists believe that there is no inherent meaning or purpose in life, but that it is up to the individual to determine what their life means to them. Life is ambiguous and each of is responsible for defining our purpose. When I first discovered existentialism, I was going through a depressive episode and I believed that life had no meaning at all. I saw the world as bleak, empty, and pointless (this is what existentialists would call dread or anguish). The key part that I was missing was that life is what we make of it. We assign value to our lives, creating meaning. I had misconstrued existentialism to reflect my depression. These beliefs powered my suicidal ideation and I found myself in the hospital because of it.
Later, when I was mentally stable, I began to re-read existential texts. I found freedom and empowerment in the idea that I could define what my life meant to me. Instead of thinking that life was empty, I began to ask, “What does my life mean to me?” I came up with seven reasons to answer why I am alive:
- To love my family and friends
- To understand the connection of human beings
- To appreciate the beauty of nature
- To experience the gift of music
- To engage in wild passion
- To explore the world with open eyes
- To learn and heal from suffering
I have come to believe that having purpose and meaning in our lives fuels the fire of existence. When I explored what my life meant to me, I discovered I didn’t need many reasons to live, that the short list I had come up with was enough. My life transformed, and I began to appreciate my reasons to live with more intention. The world became more beautiful. The little moments in life gave me joy: seeing my mother smile, watching a baby laugh, witnessing a sunrise, or stepping on fresh fallen leaves in Autumn. Having a sense of purpose gave me a reason to wake up every morning.
Before I read about existentialism, I always thought that life had a predetermined meaning, something collective for all of humanity. I struggled with this belief because I could not figure out what that meaning was. Now I choose meaning deliberately. By doing that, I have strengthened my sense of purpose. I have become more aware of my values and I made a conscious decision to live by them.
Do you believe that meaning is intrinsic or that you define it? If you were asked “what does your life mean to you”, how would you answer?