Where Does Meaning Come From?

“What gives my life meaning?”

Is there any more central question than that? Most days we don’t even dare face such a heavy question, such an existentially loaded quagmire. Yet, we all carry this question–even if it is buried deep down within us and rarely if ever sees the light of awareness.

Perhaps the biggest hindrance in our search for the answer to this question is that so much of religion teaches people that they cannot trust themselves. They must trust an outer authority more than their own soul. Trust the pope, the priest, the Bible, but not your own experience. Trusting yourself is dangerous. It’s ripe for abuse (never mind how much the same is true of any authority). And so people look to an external authority, a voice from outside to tell them what their life is all about.

There is nothing inherently wrong with authority. We all need authority. Especially when we’re younger and are still trying to learn how to think and develop our own sense of discernment.

The problem comes when the authority–whatever form it takes–tries to completely replace our act of thinking, feeling, discerning. Instead of using the blessing and opportunity of authority to teach people how to discern, how to really think, how to truly feel, the authorities think it is their job to provide that themselves. To answer all the questions. To spoon-feed the truth (their version of it). It is a terrible form of pride drawing people into co-dependency that constantly conveys the message: “You cannot trust yourself (therefore, trust me–or my interpretation).”

One consequence of this problem is that people begin to look outside of themselves not just for the truth, but for their values as well. Even if one is so blessed as to have found an authority that is humble and truth-filled–unless they are teaching that person how to learn to find truth on their own, to discern a situation, to listen to the Voice within, they will always be dependent. And their dependence will not just be confined to that one person, or one specific authority.

What is important in life? The response then becomes not an inner searching, a wrestling within, but a looking around. Impressions. Much of this happens on a subconscious level; we don’t even realize we are doing it. How is everyone else acting? What are the things that people are doing that are being celebrated and I admire? What values do these actions communicate? These are fine and good questions. We all need models and people we admire. They can point in helpful directions. But in a way we’ve been trained to depend on them. Unless they are somehow internalized, or rather, unless they can become the water that helps sprout a latent seed buried within, there will be no root. And it will not endure. It will constantly change throughout a person’s life. It will be wandering through the desert, from mirage to mirage.

People cannot live by external values, no matter how virtuous and admirable. Values must come from within, must be discovered in the heart. They must be taught and learned of course, but in the way of offering. They are not dictated, but revealed. Not fed, but watered. Showing the soul how to receive from the spring of living water.

If it is not chosen by the individual, it will not truly take root, nor will it become a source of meaning.

What gives my life meaning?

If we allow ourselves to face such a question. If we can bear the existential dread that comes with the fear that maybe we don’t know the answer to this question. And if we can begin to trust that perhaps the answer to this question cannot be found out there, but somehow within. Then, accepting that we must live with the inner tension of this question and that there are no easy answers to be handed to us, perhaps we can really begin on the true search.

We are not asking, “What is the meaning of life?” Our question is much more personal. It is not for the philosophers, the teachers, the theologians. Only you can know the answer to this question. The only way the question can be answered by another is if it is given by the Divine Other. The new name on the white stone. The pearl of great price that is buried within the field that exists in your very heart. The divine image. The spring of eternal life. The kingdom of God within you. Let your life speak. The voice of the true self–not the false self.

The first step is probably admitting that we do not have an answer to the question–or if we do it is at best incomplete. But hopefully we have begun to look in the right place. Where does meaning come from? From within. Always from within.

If you bristle against that idea, as sometimes I find myself even doing, it is evidence of the extent to which we’ve been conditioned not to trust ourselves. Not to trust the Spirit of God within us. What, or Who else could possibly give your life its meaning?

What gives your life meaning?

Only you can discover the answer to that question. Many things in this world–beauty, truth, grace, etc–can reveal much and point us in very helpful directions. Most importantly, they can aide in our ability to listen to the voice of God in our own hearts.

And so we ask for meaning. We look out to point within. It’s the only place a true and lasting answer can be found.


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