I’m just kidding. I don’t have an answer to this question, and I’m sure no one does. However, I came up with a plausible conjecture, one that is a mesh of many different reads. And after reading this, hopefully, it might even provoke you to think for yourself.
There simply isn’t any inherent meaning to things. This thought popped into my head when I heard a Malay friend listening to a Korean Pop song one day. Obviously, there wasn’t any comprehension yet there was enjoyment. Put it another way, what I understood from it is that there isn’t a need to understand the meaning of things for us to find meaning in things that we do. I know this sounds a little trippy but bear with me for awhile.
You see, I believe we are the ones that attach meaning to things, to events, to situations— we attach our meaning. Words are just words and they don’t actually have any meaning until we define them; numbers were just numbers and they didn’t hold any values until we decided they did.
For example, think of the word Horse. Without any effort, an image will pop into your mind, and that image you have in mind will probably be similar to mine. Psychologically speaking, this is referred to as mental association. Association refers to the mental connection between concepts and events. It is the basis for acquiring knowledge. So no doubt it’s important then. But as humans, being prone to making mistakes, we often make many false associations (or biases) and thereby unknowingly lead a wronged life, so to speak.
If you truly think about it, words don’t actually have any inherent meanings. It is only after we have generally come together to accept a certain meaning for a word, to collectively agree on it, that a word is assigned that given meaning. For example, take the word Happiness. What comes to your mind immediately? You see, in this case, Happiness doesn’t have a fixed definition yet. Psychologists, neurologists and philosophers are all still trying to figure what it actually means to be happy. Is it simply the feeling of contentment or satisfaction? The release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin in the brain? Or is it just to be?
As you can tell, for the word Happiness, since we haven’t established any sort of fixed meaning to it, we have difficulty in associating a given meaning to it thus we vaguely imbue it with our individual meaning—we roughly know what happiness is and we want it.
Next, if you will, think about numbers. Think of the number 9. Why is 9 assigned that value that when 9 + 7 it gives 16? Why can’t 9 be 5 that when 9 + 7 it gives 12? To understand what I’m saying, I guess you’d do better if you just consider the word instead of the value. So 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 6, 7? I don’t know if you are able to grasp my point but, my point is that we attach values to words. For numbers, we are schooled to recognise what the numbers signify and thereby, in order to not create any confusion since the Stone Age, we accept them for what they denote. If somewhere somehow, someone decided to take 9 as 5, is he wrong? Obviously, he is right? Chances of him communicating his meaning of 9 to the world? 0. Chances of him functioning properly in our society? Zero.
Which brings me to my point of education. Education teaches us the immutable laws of Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and etc., the technicality and fundamentals of the universe we live in so that we are able to make sense of things and fit into the society. In short, education prepares us for what is to come. But more importantly, education in our formative years is more so critical as those are the years that hold a strong influence on the rest of our life, as it eventually determines the intelligence, personality and social behaviour of a child to a large extent.
During the formative years is when a child makes sense of his surrounding, his environment and it is when he eventually settles his mind, associate meanings to experiences, know what is pain and what is pleasurable, discover his aversions and inclinations, and lastly, find out what he values.
Which is why when you look back at the formative years of say, murderers, psychopaths and sociopaths, you will be able to detect some similarity between them—perhaps an abusive relationship with a supposed kin?—because during then, due to those undesirable upbringings, they formed themselves a certain way to protect themselves.
But don’t despair, people can change despite. Habits can be removed, brains can be rewired, values can be reset—if the will is willing, that is.
There has never been a freer time than now for self-expression and individuality. Scientific Revolution gave rise to the religion that is Humanism. Humanism, in short, is the religion where humans replaced gods as the capital G. Everything that works for humankind is condoned. From the unethical methods of procuring meat to the destruction of Mother Earth for greater comfort—all for humans. Everything and anything that works for humans works.
Liberty, freedom of expression and individuality. These are literally the spoils of war that we’ve fought hard to get. Though this is perhaps the time when we are freest, it is at the same time, when we are most susceptible to wrongdoings of our own. The baton has been passed to individual beings. We are now free to create our meanings, assert our own individualities and create our own lives, unlike the past. This responsibility, however, demands a greater moral compass to guide us in our life.
What I’m trying to point out here is that we can now choose what we each want to value—no longer are we bounded by others. These values that one hold can either be tangible or intangible; there is no right or wrong. If you realised, there is an increased call for greater autonomy by so many influential people, life coaches and inspirational quotes. The rave now “is to not chase people. Be you and do your own thing,” and “Don’t try to impress people and always be yourself.” I mean I agree they are great pieces of advice but, at the end of it all, the core message they are trying to drive is: Values.
What do you value?
What are your personal values?
What are the things that you value most, that guide you through your life?
To connect the dots above, I believe there isn’t any inherent meaning to things or experiences, that we are the ones who define what they mean, and what they mean to us are subjected to our aversions, inclinations, biases, preceding experiences and more importantly, how and what we are taught (to value). In short, our values determine the subjective meanings of our experiences, or broadly speaking, how we perceive things to be. Not just that, it also determines what experiences we choose to go through, why and how we go through them.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
So what does it all mean to you and why is it important? Let me reiterate again. Since there isn’t any inherent meaning to everything, it goes to say even the meaning of life is an arbitrary one—life is what you make of it. So, depending on your values, your life will either have great meaning or none at all. Which is the point of it all: Purpose.
“There is no good or bad, only what you think of it.” — Shakespeare
Purpose is particularly important. Lots of people live through life without purpose and without aim. Without clearly defining the things we value in life and what we stand for, we will never be able to discover the reason(s) why we live. Without any clearly defined reason to live, one will find themselves easily swayed be else one, their character often breached and their morals frequently violated. One will never be able to live a meaningful and fulfilling life that is worth living. So in short, our values guide how we live and they provide the framework for our character. If you haven’t already got it: The values we choose to hold and live by are really, really important.
Remember, life is really short—80-years-on-average short—are you gonna live it by chance, by your whims and mere impulses? Are you gonna live reacting to life or are you gonna let life react to you?
“Success comes when we are able to wake up every day in that never-ending pursuit of why we do what we do.” So it goes to say that in order to achieve success, we need to know why we do what we do, right?
Lastly, before I end this, allow me to give you this quote from the famed book Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” In other words, life presents different sets of problems for each unique individual. The task of man, therefore, isn’t to strive for where others derive their meaning of life from but to strive for their own purpose—their own answer to their own unique question life posed to them. It is up to you to decide whether you want to live a meaningful life or not. Are you going to?