Have you ever swam through icy waters fully clothed and without a life jacket to drag to the shore an unconscious woman who you never met before? Jack Casey has. In the course of two years he responded as a volunteer to more than five hundred emergency calls ending up saving people from burning buildings or risking his personal safety by entering situations where persons were stabbed by their own family members. Ever since high school volunteering has been a big part of Jack Casey’s life. In addition to being a member of the rescue squad he spends three hours a week teaching a Red Cross course in first aid and takes people backpacking through an outdoor program he initiated a few years before. Jack Casey is truly a selfless american hero who wants to be there for the others.
At the same time Jack Casey describes himself as a person ”who likes to be relatively independent of other people.” He refuses to be dependent on anyone and prides himself for being a rugged individualist who does what he wants, when he wants, disregarding anyone’s opinion. Freedom to do what one wants has been said to be the number one American value. At least for Jack Casey it is his guiding principle.
Jack Casey represents what Robert Wuthnow calls an American paradox. On the one hand he is more individualistic and less dependent on others than most of us. On the other hand he cares for others much more than the average person. What is he then, an individualist or an altruist?
The answer is: he is both. Being individualistic and caring about others don’t cancel each others out. They are like apples and oranges. First there is the issue of who controls our lives? Are we able to make independent choices or are we so weak and dependent on others that we let them run our lives? This is the question of individualism. It is thus a question about are we in charge of our own lives.
Second we have the issue of who do we care about? Are we egoistic persons for whom only our own benefits count? Or are we more altruistic persons who find satisfaction in helping others? This is the question of altruism. An individualistic person who makes his or her own life decisions can make a totally independent choice of whether to help only oneself or help also those in need. As long as the choice is one’s own, one is an individualist. Thus it is perfectly possible to be an altruistic individualist.
The paradox is that in our times individualistic people are actually more altruistic than less individualistic people. Wuthnow found in her survey that those people who placed a high emphasis on self-oriented values such as realizing one’s talent were actually slightly more likely to be involved in charitable activities than other citizens.
The reason for this is found in the fact that we are constantly bombarded with propaganda that says that everyone should take care of only their own business. There is a norm in our society that tells that either be self-interested or be a fool. And no one wants to be the fool. Thus many people suppress their more altruistic instincts in order to live up to the selfish norms of our times. They don’t dare to be unselfish as they fear that people would mock them for not being able to take care of their own interests. It actually takes courage to admit that one did something for others without any self-interest in mind.
We live in paradoxical times: It is the weak who believe that you should only care about yourself. It takes some balls to be out there and admit that one cares about others and is willing to make sacrifices for them. So be a true individualist and dare to care about others!
Ok, let’s have a take on this age-old mystery. The answer is in fact quite simple. The meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to other people. It’s about making a positive contribution in the lives of those people one holds dear. Why? I’ll tell you why.
To start with, we need to focus on the one asking the question. Because most of us never ask such a question in all its seriousness. For most of us the question is a joke, something to make fun of when we want to mock too deep-going thinking. On the other hand, there are those artists who have taken this enigma so seriously that they have been driven to suicide by this haunting question. So, who asks the question?
Only those people who have for some reason distanced themselves from the framework for life given to them by their upbringing. Most people never seriously question the worldview provided by the society around them or their religion – be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or the modern alternative: Consumerism. The question opens itself up in all its seriousness to only those of us who for one reason or another have started to question the given, the values and purposes that they were brought up to believe in.
Next, we need to look at the question itself. What do we really ask, when we ask about the meaningfulness of our lives?
Question of meaningfulness is in the end a question about making our lives have meaning in some framework bigger than ourselves. As long as we are asking how to make ourselves happy or how to maximize our own outcomes in life we are not asking about the meaning of our life. These are perfectly legitimate questions and some people are able to live their lives without asking anything else. But only when they ask what bigger meaning their lives might have, do they start to care about making their lives meaningful. Thus we need to find something bigger than ourselves that we can believe in and that we feel we can contribute to in order to feel that our life has a meaning.
Where to then look for something bigger than ourselves? As said, those asking the question are the people who no longer believe to an answer external to them. They have distanced themselves from modern consumerism and ancient religions. There is then only one direction from which they can look for an answer: Inside of them. And what do we find inside of us? We find that we are creatures that are <a href="deeply dependent on others. We are creatures that want to belong. We are creatures that build our sense of value through sensing how others value us. It is extremely hard to uphold a high regard of ourselves if others don’t care about us at all. As creatures who need to feel connected, we want that others care about us.
Given our psychological build-up the most solid base for purpose we can genuinely believe in is found in other people. When we believe that we contribute positively to lives of others, then we feel that our life has value and meaning. That’s how simple it is. What group of others is most important to one is then a matter of preference. Some find meaning through their own kids, others through their work and still others through some voluntary work: Orphans in Africa, homeless in your home town, breast cancer victims, whatever is your cup of tea.
Meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to others. It is up to you to decide to whom you want to be meaningful.