Being Human: Life With Meaning

We create our own meaning and purpose in life. Anthropocentrism is dead but soul and self are real. Creativism means self-actualisation: human potential realised.

Our place in the universe

The anthropocentric view of humankind is slowly waning: we are not at the centre of everything, and everything is not to be seen ultimately in our terms. However, it is not unreasonable to say that our ability to change the world makes us special. Our capacities and our limitations alike occupy a vast spectrum: we are both very big and very small. Above all, we are interconnected, not just with each other but with everything else. Individually and equally, we are all aspects or expressions of the one ultimate reality. Rationalism and the growth of humanism have fostered our self-awareness, enabling us to understand ourselves more and then, by extension, to grow in understanding of the Universe. We recognise now a moral duty as well as a practical imperative to apply this understanding for the betterment of all life.

Purpose in living or living with purpose

We have conditioned ourselves to think everything must have a purpose or meaning, but this is questionable. We cannot assume there is such a thing as “the meaning of life.” Our Universe and the life it supports appear to have sprung from a mysterious source that had the overriding imperative to create: nothing less, nothing more. Ostensibly we exist to satisfy this imperative, and not for any other reason. To claim there was a divinity that willed us into existence, though it may be true, is to indulge in wishful thinking. However, though we might not exist for a divine purpose, we can and do create our own purpose. It is from this purpose that we derive meaning in life. Fundamental to this is our will to live, which very soon becomes will to live well; and how we define “well” is the heart of ethics. A proposition to consider is that our chosen purpose and therefore meaning in life should be about not just our individual self (me) or relational self (us) but all self, that is, all life. This is the common teaching of religions around the world. At the very least, we can aim for self-actualisation, becoming our best self – whatever that means.

Soul and the self

Science denies the existence of such a thing as the soul, on various grounds including its supposed immortality. Stripped of immortality, it is simply the personality or self or psyche that most of us can comfortably relate to. Buddhism offers a different view, accepting the existence of a soul but not the existence of the self, which it sees as a delusion and a cause of suffering. Neuroscience, supported by some philosophers, plays the role of devil’s advocate, for it argues that the concept of self and the mind are both just neurological phenomena. From a practical everyday perspective, however, we do best if we align with psychology, which sees the self as an integral part of living, giving us all a much needed sense of identity. A purely materialistic or mechanistic view of the self could lead to a lifestyle that accepts no responsibility for one’s own actions. We need not only a concept of self, explaining who we are and what we do, but also a belief that the self is valuable – even better, that every self is valuable. Without this, there can be no ethics.

Human potential

Humanism has done us all a favour by turning the spotlight onto human potential. However, we do not know the limits of our potential and therefore struggle with the self-improvement which we aspire to. Enlargement of our potential requires a deeper engagement with ourselves and other people. New ways of achieving this are becoming available; for example, psychologist and neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson has shown the benefits of various kinds of training of the mind, such as compassion meditation training. As well, we should never underestimate the power of religion to transform lives. At its best, religion helps us see beyond the boundaries of the merely material and gives us a new standard and a new framework for action, which can make us radically more creative.

The supernatural

Humankind both rejects the supernatural and embraces it. The supernatural can, of course, mean many things, from the divine to the ridiculous. We are drawn to the supernatural for different reasons: mystery; fear, like a moth to a flame; or wonder, with a perception that there is power which can help us. Attraction may be healthy, provided we are reaching out to something that is connected with real life. The resurrection of Jesus is an example: beyond the bounds of literal truth, as theologian John Shelby Spong has argued, it is a way of saying that Jesus was raised into the meaning of God, and thus the ultimate metaphor for the power of sacrifice. The supernatural often seems highly believable and it therefore requires discernment grounded in common sense. Elements of the supernatural that involve fear, luck or abandonment of our own truth are to be held with suspicion; others we may accept, if they are life-enhancing. Preserving our sense of mystery or of life being more than it seems is not in itself a bad thing.

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read The Rock Pool

The essence of being human is that we have unparalleled freedom and means to exert our own will and shape our own future. There are indeed times when we appear to transcend nature, though in the final analysis we will always have feet of clay. At this stage in our history, we ought to have some maturity in the way we see ourselves and our place in the Universe.

We make our way through life not just through our mind but through our whole personality. The possibilities for enriching this personality are seemingly endless. Whether we realise it or not, we are geared to making the best of ourselves, and in doing so, we as individuals contribute positively to life as a whole. Thus creativism stands for self-actualisation: human potential fulfilled.

Suggested further reading

Davidson, Richard J, and Sharon Begley. 2012. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live - and How You Can Change Them. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Metzinger, Thomas. 2009. The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books.

Spong, John Shelby. 2007. Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human. Sydney: HarperCollins.

Tierney, Nathan. 2001. “The Evolutionary Self in Christian and Philosophical Perspectives.” In Ethics in the World Religions, edited by Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, 137-59. Oxford: Oneworld.