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Our Drive For Meaning

Our Drive For Meaning

Meaning is one of man's greatest needs. Can life have meaning if existence is the result of a random occurrence?

by

In "Man's Search for Meaning", Viktor Frankl recounts what happened to F., a fellow inmate in Auschwitz:

"I would like to tell you something, Doctor. I have had a strange dream. A voice told me that I could wish for something, that I should only say what I wanted to know, and all my questions would be answered... I wanted to know when we, when our camp, would be liberated and our sufferings come to an end."

"And when did you have this dream?" I asked. "In February, 1945," he answered. It was then the beginning of March.

"What did your dream voice answer?"

Furtively he whispered to me, "March 30."

When F. told me about this dream, he was still full of hope and convinced that the voice of his dream would be right. But as the promised day drew nearer, the war news which reached our camp made it appear very unlikely that we would be free on the promised date. On March 29, F. suddenly became ill and ran a high temperature. On March 30, the day his prophecy had told him that the war and suffering would be over for him, he became delirious and lost consciousness. On March 31, he was dead. To all outward appearances, he had died of typhus.

Meaning is one of our greatest needs. Without it, we can't live. For the prisoner in Auschwitz, the promise of liberation became his sole purpose for living. When the appointed day passed, his will to live evaporated.

With meaning, it is possible to even survive the unspeakable horror of a concentration camp. Frankl writes:

"There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.'" (Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search For Meaning")

ACCIDENT OR INTENT?

The deep-seated conviction that there is a purpose to existence, that life is worth living, rests upon the axiom that life is not an accident. There is a reason for our existence.

Imagine pulling a series of cards randomly from a hat and writing the numbers down.

If life were merely a result of a random occurrence, what meaning could it ultimately have?

A friend walks in and notices the series of numbers you have written, not knowing that the order has no rhyme or reason. He stares at the numbers, racking his brain. Suddenly he lights up and exclaims, "I get it! This is why you put them in this order!" And he starts rattling off some explanation of the arrangement.

The friend's brilliant commentary on the meaning of the number sequence does not change the reality: There is no meaning to the order. It is entirely random, pulled out of a hat with zero intent.

If life were merely a result of a random occurrence, without prior aim or intent, what meaning would existence ultimately have? Life would be just an accident, a fluke spontaneously leaping from chaos, without rhyme or reason. It may be possible to supply a fabricated layer of meaning and context, adding a gloss of order and reason like the friend did with the number series. But at the end of the day, the reality would remain unchanged -- there would still be no real purpose to life.

EXISTENTIALIST BELIEF

The issue of invented meaning is a key difference between Judaism and Existentialism.

Judaism maintains life is not random. There is a God who created us for a reason, and that purpose is inherent to existence. Existentialism believes that life has no intrinsic purpose. There is no God who created the universe with intent; existence is an accident.

Judaism maintains that there is a God who created us for a reason, and that purpose is inherent to existence.

How then does the existentialist wake up every morning ready to face the pains and frustrations of life -- for no purpose? What prevents him from taking the final exit?

Existentialism's solution: the human being is challenged to "create" meaning.

"Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is... Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." (Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism")

But what does this "created meaning" amount to?

Samuel Beckett's enigmatic tragi-comedy, "Waiting for Godot," wrestles with this dilemma. The play's two main characters are hobos who are literally trapped in a world represented by the stage. They seem incapable of taking leave, even though at times they desperately want to go. Thus the repeated refrain throughout the play:

"Well, let's go."
"We can't."
"Why not?"
"We're waiting for Godot."
"Ohhh."

Trapped in a world devoid of meaning, they are frequently enticed by the idea of leaving it all behind. "Let's go." But the option of suicide proves too difficult -- "We can't." Staying alive, they are immediately confronted with the need to justify their painful and absurd existence: "Why not?" What is our purpose for being here?

"We're waiting for Godot. Ohhh..." That's their fabricated purpose -- to wait for the mysterious Godot figure to arrive. The tragedy is twofold: Godot never shows up, and even worse -- there is no Godot. He doesn't really exist -- they made him up. For these hobos, their meaning is a delusion. Because they live in a world where there is no God, the stark reality is that life is an accident and has no meaning.

In the words of the existentialist author Albert Camus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." For the existentialist, confronting reality head-on eventually leads to despair, and ultimately the necessity to escape from a useless life. The only option for survival is submerging oneself in an illusion of meaning, a world of make-believe.

"Dostoevsky said, "If God did not exist, everything would be permissible." That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him or without does he find anything to cling to." (Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism")

EXISTENCE BY DESIGN

Judaism is just the opposite. Reality is to be embraced, not shunned. The existence of God means that life is not a pointless accident. Life was created, placed here by design by a purposeful Being. There is authentic meaning, a reason for existence that is objective and real, not invented.

Hope and celebration replace suicide as the natural responses to reality.

In Judaism, hope and celebration replace suicide as the natural responses to reality. Purpose engenders a commitment to build a life of integrity, a passion to embrace the beauty and holiness that pervades the universe. True love, goodness and meaning are not illusory figments of a desperate imagination. They are the soul of existence.

Existentialism and Judaism present two diametrically opposing views:

  • Existentialism: Reality does not have genuine meaning.
  • Judaism: Reality does have genuine meaning.

     

  • Existentialism: God is just another Godot figure, invented to pacify a hopeless life.
  • Judaism: God is objectively real, the source of life's true meaning and goodness.

     

  • Existentialism: Feelings of love, spiritual connection and being of service are illusions. Virtue has no objective reality.
  • Judaism: Love, spirituality and being good are authentic moments of experiencing the essence of life. Virtue has absolute existence.

Where do you stand? Like any important issue which can be looked at from opposing viewpoints, our task is to try to discover the truth to the best of our ability, making informed decisions based on sufficient evidence, reason and experience.

[An upcoming article will examine some of the evidence on the existence of God according to Judaism. To examine some of the evidence of the Divine origin of the Torah, go to: Did God Speak at Sinai. For information about the Discovery Seminar, go to: Discovery]

Published: May 13, 2000


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Visitor Comments: 9

(8) Searching, April 7, 2014 12:57 AM

Don't just Exist, LIVE!

One thought. If you have to challenge yourself, you are making excuses for the reason you challenge yourself. An excuse to live. Excuses are lies you tell yourself to make yourself feel better about what you do.

(7) Bruce Buchanan, November 7, 2010 4:48 AM

I often wonder, myself...

I certainly don't have an appropriate answer, here, but despite all the hurdles, even atrocities, some of us have faced, I still believe God is good. We don't always see this, as His ways are not OUR ways, & I understand only too well what (6), Anonymous is saying, & would like to shake his hand!

(6) Anonymous, August 26, 2008 3:24 PM

I have to agree with the first poster. This article explains the problem of life without meaning, but offers no proof either way as to whether or not meaning exists. Jewish history and survival is indeed a striking and seemingly unusual event, but an unusual survival story is not enough to constitute proof of God or proof of meaning in life. Ultimately the last line of this article which states that we must make our decisions concerning the reality of God or meaning based on "evidence, reason, and experience" is not valid. The only evidence for God is circumstantial or feeling oriented, and there are plenty of life experiences or feelings to suggest the opposite conclusion. We feel that love or altruistic acts have meaning, but we can just as easily reason that they are the complex result of base, selfish evolutionary drives. After all, many animal species (who according to both Judaism and science have no real free will) are capable of sharing resources, monogamous coupling, and even self sacrifice to save family or other group members. There is no clear evidence that God is behind these acts in chimpanzee troops, and the same can be said for human beings. Ultimately it all comes down to faith. Reason or evidence does not enter the picture, and the problem posed by the existentialists remains. I agree that without God and ultimate purpose life is empty, and that this is a very depressing notion. I also agree with Frankl that it is very difficult for most to deal with life if they don't have a why. However, the fact that life without meaning is empty and sad, doesn't constitute any evidence whatsoever that a greater meaning exists. In the Guide for the Perplexed and other works, Maimonides was able to offer a view of Judaism that went a long way in reconciling the Aristotlean scientific world view of his time with Judaism. If Judaism is to survive today among the educated, another such figure is greatly needed. Obviously I want to believe or else I wouldn’t be on this site. However, I have not been convinced. In the post holocaust world, in a world of crack babies, broken homes, crushing physical disabilities, torture, slavery, starvation, disease and mass murder, I think that God owes us real evidence of his existence and will. For those who have tried to do right and have known nothing but struggle, humiliation and despair, for those who cry out to a silent God, God should and must answer if he wishes us to follow him. In the book of Job, God murders a righteous mans family, afflicts him with disease, and takes away all his possessions for the purpose of a cosmic bet. Nothing God could say or do could ever justify this action in the eyes of Job, but at least he answered Job when Job cried out to him. Many if not most of us in this world today bleed like Job and cry out to the heavens. If God exists, why does he remain silent? Why does he allow our faith and hope to turn to hatred and despair? I think we deserve a real answer.

Lukas Dohnal, July 22, 2013 4:11 PM

Why didn't anyone react to this for 5 years?

I absolutely understand what you say and truth be told, I struggle with the same thing. The only thing which keeps me from abandoning the idea of God in face of such circumstances is that - as Tanakh says - His ways are not our ways. And since every intelligent person has no problem with admitting that our limited minds can hardly grasp anything of the complexity of the universe we live in, it is more than crystal clear that if there is a Being who is superior to universe - in complexity also - it should not be surprising that we cannot fathom it. ... On the other hand, that never really silences my doubts completely. I still have to ask why Almighty God didn't give us minds which could figure out and comprehend everything, or at least if He is Almighty, couldn't He figure out a way how to achieve the purpose of existence without letting living beings suffer and live in despair because they cannot an objectively verifiable, undeniable meaning?

(5) Kendra, June 12, 2007 6:14 PM

Even from the eyes of Existentialism, Judaism rocks :)

An existentialist logically prizes an immersize and emotionally satiating "made up story".

Questions of ultimate truth are unverifiable in either system (Judaism says "the secret things are secret" after all). So really the question is can a single person make up a story big enough to suit them ? In my experience, most existentialists aren't that creative.

So even from that perspective, Judaism is the superior choice for many people :) if you reduce it to that binary pair of alternatives.

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