Assortments of Thought

Meaning in the Everyday

Posted on: December 31st, 2011

As we continue living our lives, we all struggle, it seems, to discern a purpose behind it all … to find a meaning in it all. It’s an unavoidable struggle for such as us–sentient beings who perceive so much–not least of all because definitive answers are not to be found. So in our increasingly complex, modern world, we each find something to believe in. Our beliefs are indeed myriad though, and so are often, unfortunately, too specific and personal for all of us to agree on. Yet all of us share the experience of living a life–and we certainly all know sorrow and pain–so alleviating or preventing the suffering of others is, in fact, a purpose that we can all believe in. Not, of course, that we should all feel a need to make doing good are whole lives’ work, for such a goal entails many shades of grey, and is not even achievable or uniquely definable. No, the idea, rather, is simply that we can all act thoughtfully and non-begrudgingly toward others during everyday life … exercising our capacities for sympathy and empathy, and desiring neither rewards for us, nor punishments for others. For then we’ll help others because we genuinely feel like doing so–knowing how we would feel in similar situations–thus sharing a universal purpose that can make all our lives that much more meaningful.

The meaning of life is the most elusive mystery, perhaps, and often a painful one, particularly in our modern world. We can’t help but ponder our purpose–though we have little truly concrete information about it–and especially when our lives take turns for the worse, we struggle to understand. Little about our lifestyles helps alleviate our distress either. On the one hand, many of us around the world are so unfortunate as to live under oppressive regimes, or even without adequate food and shelter and such. Then there are many of us who are lucky enough to live in developed, powerful nations, where abundant food, shelter, jobs, technology, and liberties are at our command, at least assuming we aren’t too poor to fully share in all that, or victims of abuse or neglect or such. Yet even the best off of us can’t escape the sufferings common to us all. We may have jobs, but they may stress us out as much as support us. We may have families and friends, but all doesn’t always go well in our relationships with them. The technology we may have that’s so wondrous and helpful nonetheless fails us sometimes, or distracts us from the simpler things in life. Then there’re simply the hassles of modern life, of needing to support ourselves through work or school; needing to handle all the paperwork and bills; struggling against intolerance when people don’t accept us for who we are; and trying just to be ready for when the next crisis hits, one we not be able to solve, and if not, one we’ll simply have to learn to live with. This is, again, the best case scenario; it’s only that much harder for those of us in less fortunate situations to begin with, where even finding food or feeling safe are significant challenges. With all these hardships and hassles then, we often can’t help but wonder, what purpose could there possibly be … and what meaning can we conceivably see?

A great many responses exist to these questions, but few of them work for all of us because they’re each too specific and personal. Some of us, for instance, see no meaning at all. In a world with such darkness and suffering among good people, we feel that it’s all merely random. Not that we truly derive comfort from this; but we accept it. From there, some of us act only within the bounds of authority (if even that), or simply because we’ll take living over dying. Next, there are many of us who practice faith. For some of us this means following a formal religion: we believe God created us and that if we follow Him, we’ll be saved; or, that if we can realize our true spiritual condition, we’ll break a cycle of death and rebirth; or, that there’s a balance within all of nature and if we respect it, we’ll be in harmony; and so on and so on. As well, there are some of us who believe in a greater reality, but one which doesn’t conform to that of any pre-existing religion … or else is too hard for even us to get a handle on, to know precisely what it is we believe in. Of course, as incommunicable as these latter beliefs may be; as certain as the former ones usually feel; and as nihilistic as believing in nothing at all may seem; there’s no way all of us could ever believe in any one of these myriad beliefs. As valuable and enriching as they each may be–and they are very meaningful, for specific groups of us–they’re just too specific and personal for all of us to agree on.

All of us share the experience of living a life though–and we certainly all know sorrow and pain–so alleviating or preventing the suffering of others is, indeed, a purpose that we can all believe in. Indeed, it has often been observed (particularly by those fighting sexism, racism, and the like) that we’re all akin to one another simply because we’re all human, but this idea, while good, is nonetheless a little vague and underdeveloped. See, no matter how we came to be–whether by a supreme being, a universal force, or just nature–we’re all in this together, sharing the experience of life … and we all suffer for it. Indeed, while we all have our independence and may feel at times that we stand apart from each other, in truth, we’re all very much interdependent and connected. That is, we all live, work, and dream as small contributors within larger societies–an arrangement few of us could ever avoid–and even more so, we all suffer the hardships inherent in such lives. Indeed then, since we all experience suffering and know how it feels–certainly, both suffering itself, and also the feeling of having our suffering at times alleviated–simply through our own experiences, we can appreciate alleviating or preventing it in others. So, we’re not intrinsically united merely because we’re all human; we’re intrinsically united because we all share the experience of living a human life, and more significantly, of suffering, of enduring pain and sorrow. For this very special reason then, we can all see a purpose in alleviating or even preventing the suffering of others, for it’s quite a natural objective.

Of course, this is not to suggest that we should all devote our lives to becoming saviors of some kind, for in the extreme, helping others isn’t even a single, definable action, much less a possible one. We can’t truly make the cause of goodwill the only one in our lives, for doing so would necessarily lead to impossibilities, contradictions, and numerous shades of grey. For instance, no one could completely give up self-interest in the interest of assisting others; they would be left without the means of support–both physical and psychological–that living requires. Nor would total self-sacrifice even be desirable, for if alleviating the burdens of others is the goal–the same goal shared by all–then each person’s self simply cannot be excluded. Many extreme, specific goals of helping other raise numerous questions as well. Just knowing how to be helpful is the first, for nearly anything can be construed to be for the benefit of someone. Terrorists, for instance, certainly believe they’re doing good when they carry out attacks, no matter how much pain and misery they cause. In dealing with the presumably bad deeds of some people then, another issue is precisely who even deserves help. Murderers, for instance, typically don’t deserve assistance in trying to get away with their crimes, and anyone who renders such help simply becomes an accomplice. A trickier question then is how to proceed when helping certain people would simultaneous hurt them, or else others. In particular, sometimes even the best of intentions to help can degenerate to mere meddling, as for instance when someone dispenses advice on a critical matter that they really only know a little about, enough to be helpful, yet not enough to know of all the possible dangers inherent in their advised paths. Finally, perhaps the grandest issue raised in seeking to help others is the fact that some suffering is probably necessary, for if no one suffered, no one would understand or empathize with suffering, and the world would just collapse in truly grand, rampant misery as people began acting with no regard for others to an extent never before seen. Fortunately, of course, this last issue is only a theoretical one, for no matter how dedicated some people will be to helping others, many other people will always be dedicated only to themselves, permitting or even causing misery as a result. In sum then, helping others is not even possible in the extreme–no one could dedicate their life solely to service–partly because it becomes too grey, and also because it isn’t even a single, definable action.

Yet alleviating the suffering of others remains a unifying purpose for our lives, and indeed, there’s an way to do it that generally avoids all the issues: simply acting thoughtfully and non-begrudgingly toward others during everyday living. In many ways, it’s more about holding a special attitude than doing anything in particular, for when we show other people goodwill during our everyday routines, helpful actions generally result. At the very least, our concern will lead us to be courteous–to greet and thank people properly, as well as respectfully make requests of them–but that’s only a beginning. Even without knowing what someone may be like or what they may’ve done, there are many other things we can do for them that don’t require us to know their personal life stories … and that don’t motivate us to consider judgement about them. For instance, if we notice that someone has dropped something, we can be sure to tell them about it, and even pick it up for them. More significantly, whenever we find money or even a wallet or purse, we can not only return it, but we can handle it ourselves, rather than entrust it to some sketchy lost-and-found. In doing such things, we’re hardly going out of the way of our everyday lives–we’re simply doing things for people that we know mean something. In this same vein then, we can always, for instance, realize how meaningful our jobs are (otherwise we wouldn’t have them), and so redouble our efforts to do them well, in service to those who benefit from our work. Likewise, be us friends, relatives, or even parents, we can always realize how important our roles are to others, and so act within them to the best of our abilities. And it goes without saying, of course, that we can always choose to treat people for who they truly are, rather than as some discriminatory attitude would have us behave. Finally, we can always choose to act proactively at times, going the extra step to truly do something good. This can be as simple as donating to charity, or else as risky as intervening in abusive or life-threatening situations. The stakes here are clearly too high for such actions to be routinely expected of us, yet these possibilities always remain … as do the chances, often, to respond to people’s needs, regardless of whether they state them or not. Whenever we put forth that little extra effort to understand and alleviate others’ suffering then, we’re realizing a very meaningful purpose … for we’re acting pursuant to our common bond: the simple struggle to get by in life.

For such a purpose to feel meaningful, however–and make us feel good about our own lives even as we help others to so feel–we must have some capacity for sympathy; work to cultivate empathy; and desire neither rewards for us, nor punishments for others. Indeed, sympathy and empathy are the essential starters to perceiving a purpose in helping others, for they enable us to see and care about others’ hardships through our own. Mere sympathy doesn’t allow us to understand and therefore relate to each others’ problems though, which is why empathy is so equally important … a sense we can try to further deliberately, especially as we accumulate more and more life experiences. Yet to truly feel meaning in assisting others, it’s also important that we desire to help others only because we know how we would feel in the same situations (or else in reasonably similar ones). If we tack on desires for rewards in exchange for our own good actions–or else punishments for others in retribution for their bad actions–then we’ll lose perspective in what we’re feeling. We’ll begin to see ourselves as far better people than we inevitably are, even as we’ll begin to see others as too unlike us, undeserving of our goodwill; and such will sabotage any sense of purpose in helping others pretty quickly. No, we must act thoughtfully and non-begrudgingly toward others only because it makes us feel good knowing that we’re helping others to feel good … alleviating the bad feelings within them that we ourselves are all too familiar with. If we can just do that, then a purpose in assisting others will begin to feel just right. Our interactions with others in everyday life will take on whole new meanings … for we’ll begin to realize just how much we mean to each other, as well as all that we can truly accomplish. In short, we’ll begin to realize the meaning in the everyday … and so we’ll begin to live far richer lives, perhaps more meaningful, even, than we’ve ever imagined.

Endnote:

In seeking to alleviate or prevent suffering, it’s important to realize that our goal applies to many animals as well. We humans aren’t the only beings that suffer, nor the only beings that deserve prevention of it, for pain is truly universal to all that feel. Thus while animal rights is a complex issue rife with many difficult, unresolved questions, we must not neglect to consider animals once we accept this universal purpose of life, for a true desire to alleviate suffering in the world calls for nothing less. In other words, maybe it’s permissible to eat meat, maybe it isn’t; perhaps it’s fine to experiment on animals, maybe it isn’t; and maybe it’s fine to use animals for entertainment, or maybe not. There are many reasons for doing such things, and a multitude of conditions under which they can be done. Yet despite the fact that many animals are so much less advanced, both relative to us and in seemingly absolute terms–meaning that we possibly do have some good reason to use them for our benefit–they still remain feeling beings to some degree, and this fact requires us to draw a line somewhere. Where, precisely, is of course the question, but nonetheless, one thing is clear: if we truly do care about alleviating suffering in the world, then we cannot treat animals however we want, hurting them for any reason at all. Rather, we must never forget that within their own capacities, they too suffer, just as we humans do.

©2011, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Might You Have Something to Add?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Archives

Copyright Notice

Copyright © 2009-2015, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or distribution of any article from this site, whether whole or in part, is strictly prohibited. Only references are permitted, provided due credit is given via identification of and direction to the article being cited. If in doubt, do ask about questions or concerns.