As we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, many of us are prompted to reflect on our own mortality. Such existential contemplation may lead us to consider what constitutes meaning in our lives. Human search for meaning is of course not new, perhaps it is the very thing which distinguishes us from other sentient beings. Finding meaning, filling our lives with it, is not always straightforward. We may feel a disconnect between our day to day activity and how we would imagine our ‘ideal’ selves. To some of us, there may be a sense of detachment from the notion of meaning, an apathy and a disconnect.

I have hand-picked three quotes from prominent thinkers to inspire and to challenge our notions of the search for meaning. I have found the words presented here a helpful way to reconnect and encourage my own internal conversation about how I wish to live my life. David Whyte, the poet and philosopher, talks about the conversational nature of reality. In times of uncertainty, he urges us to create courageous new conversations, and to respond to the invitations within them to discover our own sense of meaning. Quotes that speak to us can be just one powerful way to begin transformative conversations.

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Joseph Campbell and the hero within

The American professor, Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), is known for his work exploring the hero archetypes common to global mythologies. A hero undergoes a journey of becoming, whereby they first have to experience various transformational challenges. The hero’s journey has great appeal, because it encapsulates a universality in the ups and downs of human experience. Campbell recognised the role of the contemplative space as part of this journey and the way we root ourselves.

The following quote taken from his book “Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation” conveys the individual autonomy which constitutes our sense of purpose. Without the power of our own uniqueness and interpretation, life itself is viewed by Campbell as essentially meaningless:

‘Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.’

These words indicate that searching for meaning outside of ourselves is futile. The connection with our own purpose cannot be established by external means — rather we are called on to recognise the capacity and potential we have within to find our unique purpose in this life.

Learning about work from Goethe

For many of us our work and employment constitute a sense of purpose, and it is perhaps when they do not hold meaning for us, that dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment arise. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the German novelist, poet, statesman and polymath, in “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, did not look upon work as our key source of meaning:

‘The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.’

Are we therefore programmed somehow to see ourselves as undeserving of leisure time? Has work permeated our homes (even more so during the pandemic) to the extent that we cannot successfully delineate between the two? I argue in another article that it is the pervasiveness of neoliberal dogma and of the economic prerogative which drives us to value our productivity over other facets of human experience, such as contemplative pause (of key importance according to Campbell) and depth of relational connection. Arguably, the state apparatus benefits from us experiencing discomfort when taking time off. I recommend reading the writings of the sociologist David Frayne proposing a ‘post-work’ society, whereby work is no longer the dominant moral imperative nor source of meaning.

Anais Din and our self-actualising story

So how can we change the ‘monotonous affair’ narrative? Anais Din (1903–1977), the French-Cuban prolific diarist and novelist, famed for writing graphically (and courageously) about sex from a woman’s vantage point at a time when this was highly controversial, again underlined the individual’s power to give meaning to their own life:

‘There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.’

Here, in a quote taken from “The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1" the unfolding story is emphasized. How each of our lives is ready for us to narrate. That through achieving mastery over our own story, we give our lives meaning. The story we tell ourselves about our role in the world is surely a crucial one. Parallels can be drawn here with the notion of self-actualisation — that as living organisms we have the innate drive to fully realise our intellectual, creative and social potential — the process of which is again unique to each person.

Though the quotes I have chosen here focus on and assume individual autonomy, the pandemic has also made us acutely aware of our interdependencies. The collective actions we have taken to uphold our own health and the health of others, and to challenge the ideologies that divide us, demonstrate the power too of interconnectedness is rediscovering meaning. And here it is apt to return to David Whyte’s notion of the conversational nature of reality, whereby our worlds are played out through the discourse we have with ourselves and with others. Whyte writes about the power of the ‘beautiful question’ which we are urged to ask ourselves often in ‘unbeautiful times’. It is through this question that we begin to transform and shape our lives and weave our own purposeful narratives. And it is in this vein that I leave you with a final thought: simply asking yourself the question as to what constitutes meaning for you can be even more transformative than having it answered.