Meaning in life; the big important questions

I think one of the big issues that everyone faces is finding worth.  I’ve seen people who have achieved financial and career success and still they seem to crave validation that their works have been meaningful.  I know that I’ve craved reassurance that I’m valuable. Self-worth has been a theme that I’ve seen and feared a lot lately.  I’m certain that it’s been going on in many people, for a long time.

“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be described as the general neurosis of our time.” -Carl Jung

“In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So– if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.   … Poverty is a relatively mild disease for even a very flimsy American soul, but uselessness will kill strong and weak souls alike, and kill every time.” -Kilgore Trout

“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” -Ecclesiastes

I don’t think that this drive is really about having moral/merit-filled actions.   Rather I suspect it’s the fear that when we die we’ll have left nothing lasting left behind us.

From what I can tell there is a natural pattern to the way these feelings develop over the course of a life.  As a youth, with all of your years spread out in front of you, it’s natural to want to prove yourself.  Implicit in this is a notion that achieving success (even just for the sake of success) will bring a measure of happiness; the ability to look on your works and feel proud.  I think this comes naturally because society pushes us to produce things that society needs, and the vehicle for driving us is the carrot on a stick of contentment and success and status. Eventually one achieves these things (or maybe not) and that promised satisfaction isn’t likely to be there, or if it is it’s fleeting.  For myself, somehow in the process of this striving/competing I had lost something.  If happiness/success are what I imagine waits for me after accomplishing some goal or another then my competitors are no longer possible friends or colleagues but obstacles in the way of my happiness.  Even subconsciously one treats people differently when seeking out achievement.

“The achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of diminution of personality.” -Carl Jung

For me this has been in the realm of science, which is supposedly a place to seek out truth.  Eventually you compete for limited jobs and limited funding opportunities and find yourself mimicking the destructive behaviors of those who came before you.  Wanting to use students’ labor and guard your precious ideas so that you aren’t scooped.  My idealism is too high of a price for the meagre prize of a spot in the academic world.

Anyhow, I suppose there are other youthful paths to the same conclusions.  You could buy into the eat, drink, and be merry ride.  I suspect that the same dissatisfaction arises after too much time on the party train.  We’re all lead to the same big questions:

What am I doing?  Am I making an impact?  Is the path I’m on really leading to contentment and/or a meaningful life?

I’m still too young to know how this sort of thing shakes out.  I suspect that the questions get quieted by the responsibilities of life but that they’re always lurking, nagging just a bit at a subconscious level.  I’m not religious, but the old testament book of Ecclesiastes seems to be from someone older sharing the intimate details of their struggle with a search for meaning.  There is a laundry list of things that he’s tried (riches, wisdom, hedonism, power) that all turn out in vain (they’re all vanity and chasing the wind).  In the end it seems the he relies on God to judge the value of his works.  I take this to mean, we do the best we can with what we have and know, and you have to trust that if you’ve tried to do good works this won’t go unappreciated by the universe.  We’re a part of a process that is larger than us or our lifespans, and we may not be remembered but our impact is certainly there.

We’ll see, maybe one day I can serenely accept that notion.  In the meantime, I’ll try to do my best.

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