One morning, my daughter wanted to play a rhyming game.
“Daddy, I’ll say a word and then we have to think of words that rhyme. Okay? I’ll go first…apple.”
“Hmm?” I responded with a drawn-out blank nothing. Had she stumped me on the first one? My time had apparently run out as she jumped back in with, her own answer. “I know, grapple,” she said confidently.
“Nicely done, Clare,” I said.
“I don’t even know what it means though,” she said with a little bashfulness in her voice.
“Well, it means to struggle or wrestle with something or someone. For instance, you could grapple with a person in a fight or you could grapple or wrestle with a decision. Like when you had a hard time deciding which restaurant you wanted to eat at last week.”
I could tell she was processing. As she sat there, it got me thinking about which thoughts I grapple with. The nature of being came to mind immediately. What is the meaning of life? Why am I here on this Earth? What is my purpose?
Our Search for Meaning
There are days when I feel like I’ve it figured out and days when I’m lost in existential crisis. Sometimes, I discern meaning from exploring the, “life is all about the journey and not the destination” kind of sentiment. Other times, I’m nihilistic, thinking, what does it all matter? We’re on a rock spinning through space, rotating endlessly around a star that will eventually burn out, in a galaxy, that’s nothing but a speck in the cosmos. Then, I’ll experience a moment of freedom and sense anything’s possible knowing we’re just on a ball floating through nothing. Then I’m left with innumerable, unanswerable questions and circling back to why bother. The point being? I grapple with myself. Like imaginary arguments in the shower, I go back and forth about my place in life.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes a deeply profound existential analysis inspired by three years in a Nazi concentration camp. He explores life’s most meaningful questions through his profession’s analytical lens while drawing from his harrowing experience. The essay offers perspective on real truths even if they aren’t absolute.
When man cannot find meaning, he numbs himself with pleasure.
In the essay, he describes moments when prisoners would break. They would smoke their own cigarettes as a sort of final act. Cigarettes were used as currency in the camps. When a man extinguished his last item of value in a terminal moment of pleasure, it was a sign he had no fight left. Life truly no longer had meaning. A heavy and dismal illustration of the far end of hopelessness.
I’m incredibly fortunate to not face such realizations through experience. I’m grateful that I can wrestle with meaning through a lens of love and pride. As a father, I receive living, breathing, and loving reminders on a daily basis. The drive to help them discover who and what they are is a challenge and a duty I can’t escape. They are my meaning of life. I also recognize there’s more to life than my kids. Raising them is integral, but only a slice of the pie. Again, I grapple…
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Life is a continual process of circumstances beyond our control. The challenge to change ourselves is ever-present. We must continually embrace our own evolution as individuals. While this doesn’t answer the meaning of life, it highlights the importance of renewed self-discovery to put us on a path to a reawakened sense of purpose.
When I dropped Clare off at school, she kissed me and ran off to a table of friends in her cafeteria. I stopped at the door to admire her from a distance. My god, she’s so grown up. Watching her interact with the other kids, smiling big and laughing at some joke a boy said, I noticed how happy she looked. She paused, looked over, and gave me the sweetest wave. Unembarrassed, she gave a final acknowledgement and smile that said, “I’m okay, Daddy. I love you.”
I walked through the school doors into the morning sun. The sweet smell of spring was setting the stage for the season to come. Thinking back to her little wave, I felt alive and thought about what it means to be a dad and what’s important.
The meaning of life tends to evolve. My reason for being is not the same as a decade ago. What will it look like when I’m 50 or 100? What if I live to be 120? Regardless of span, I’ll have times when I can’t change my situation and will be challenged to change myself; change which will result in a new me and sense of meaning.
When I do make progress in my quest for purpose, it’s rarely conscious or cerebral. It’s an intuition that gives me a sense of peace. It’s a feeling that my place in life has meaning, even if I can’t put my finger on it.
Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.
Humans are small and insignificant on a galactic scale. Yet we continually transcend the limits of our nature through discovery. Looking inward and grappling with these questions helps me see that our small size in the universe is not equal to our place in it.
I’m privileged to experience my daughter’s little wave and smile. Like life giving me a hug. Through her, I feel meaning in life that I don’t fully understand. A love so big in a universe where we’re so tiny. My girls are living reminders of it and help me discover that it may not be about knowing, but living.
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