…is Ours to Choose
Our basic choice is to determine the meaning of our life. Specifically, we must choose whether to accept the default mode of being in the world and allow external forces to assign meaning to our life, or to assume that responsibility for ourselves.
We are in a difficult position. We find ourselves in an embodiment and situation we did not choose, in a world we do not understand or control. The meaning of our life is not immediately apparent. However, we require certain resources to maintain our existence, and it seems that these are under the exclusive control of others.
Under the circumstances, it is understandable that most people choose to allow their significance to be determined by others. The problem with this is that it makes us a slave of the world, both externally and internally. Not only do others dictate to us who and what we are, but we internalize and identify with the imposed external values.
However, to be other-determined is to lose our fundamental integrity, to cease to be an individual—a human being in the full sense of the term—and become a mere instrument of others’ purposes, a commodity in an alien system of values.
In this position, we naturally feel debased. And indeed we are, for we have sold the dignity of our humanity, the meaning of our whole life, for the short-term satisfaction of material needs. To seek a solution for this indignity requires us to confront a terrible series of choices, a long history of allowing others to determine our meaning, and amend it to determine our meaning for ourselves.
For life or nature does not supply a meaning for our life, in and of itself. Our life is a blank slate upon which we can write whatsoever we choose. Then what meaning shall we create for ourselves? On what platform shall we stand to sail the stormy sea of life?
This is the terrible existential choice faced by every human being at each moment in our existence. Most of us fail to measure up to the challenge; we cave in, meekly accepting the conditioning of the world, in the hope that somehow life will go on as usual.
But of course, it won’t: death is coming. One day, sooner or later, our existence will come to an end. And we choose our epitaph, the final significance of our life, by the choices of meaning we make every day. If we were to die today, what would be the headline of our obituary?
- A Perpetual Adolescent
- An Ineffectual Idealist
- Sold Himself for Material Success
- A Series of Failed Relationships
- A Natty Dresser with no Soul
- A Life of Empty Pleasures
- A Pretentious Intellectual
- A Phony Religious Man
And I’m being kind. For most of us, our actual life stories would sum up to even less-flattering captions. The suffering, dissatisfaction and failure we experience in life is a direct consequence of trying to find the meaning of our life, which is uniquely our own, in the marketplace of the world. But the world does not reflect us accurately; in fact, it reflects us not at all, but has its own purpose and meaning completely independent of our own.
The world wants to treat us as an object, a replaceable part in a genetic and social machine, a unit of economic production or political power, a quantum of flesh. It wants us to auction our life and identity in the marketplace to the highest bidder, subject to the impersonal law of supply and demand. The world wants us, in short, to make a deal, to submit our will to external control. And in most cases, we do.
It is very rare to find someone who is willing to address the challenge of being human, to see the true horror of the existential situation and fully accept it as it is. And rarest of all is the true individual, who takes upon himself the responsibility to determine his own significance, declare it to the world and accept the consequences without complaint.
But what is the use if one chooses a meaning for his life that is ugly, that causes suffering and harm to others, that beings no new beauty into the world? Then he has also failed, has become a sociopath, a psychotic. History is full of fools who put themselves above the law of compassion and exercised their individuality at the expense of others instead of for their benefit.
The greatest men of all time realized the truth for themselves and then became teachers, spreading the light of knowledge that dissipates the darkness of ignorance in all those who meet them. One should become a true Friend to all, calling them to find meaning and purpose in life beyond the venal purposes of the world. Thus the greatest and best meaning of life is to realize the highest of truths, the Four Noble Truths, and teach the best of all wisdom, the Noble Eightfold Path:
The Blessed One said, “Mindfulness of death, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit & great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. Therefore you should develop mindfulness of death.
“… whoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food… for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’ — they are said to dwell heedfully. They develop mindfulness of death acutely for the sake of ending the effluents.” — Maranassati Sutta (AN 6.19)