The Difference between Real and Apparent Meaning
“What is meant by meaning?”1 Usually, the answer is: “That which is fulfilling to each individual.” However, real fulfillment must be distinguished from apparent fulfillment. What about the person who believes that stealing money is fulfilling to him or her? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. The object of fulfillment must be morally right or, at least, morally neutral. It cannot be morally wrong. What about the masochist who feels fulfilled in inflicting suffering or pain on others? That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. What about the drug dealer who feels “fulfilled” in selling cocaine and crack to kids and teenagers, who, in turn, kill themselves or others. That is apparent, not real, fulfillment. A person who is addicted to drugs may feel fulfilled in taking them. So may an alcoholic feel fulfilled in drinking. But it is not real fulfillment. There is a true fulfillment or meaning in life, which is really good for a person; and a false or apparent fulfillment or meaning in life, which seems to be good for an individual but, in reality, is not.
Does meaning in life really exist? According to the philosophy of nihilism, life is really meaningless,2 but despite that, one must choose for life to be meaningful. Each person must imagine that life has meaning, even though it has none. Meaning, then, is an illusion, a deeply held wish for something to be real but is not.
However, nihilism is contrary to common human experience. It is evident from experience that human beings desire something to fulfill them, something to keep their lives going, even if what they thought would fulfill them actually did not.
Problems in Perceiving Life’s Meaning
Problems in perceiving life’s meaning does not mean that life is meaningless. Meaning is a “given,” a starting-point, a first principle. It is a fundamental premise, which is basic to life itself. A person may question the meaning of life. He or she may even despair over life’s meaning. But that does not mean life has no meaning. Rather, it only means that the person fails to perceive his or her meaning or is blind to it, because of existential problems (i.e., problems related to living) in his or her life.
Existential problems include personal frustration; mental confusion; depression; various kinds of addictions (e.g., alcohol, sex, drugs, etc.); emotional problems, related to personal failures; or grief, related to the death of a loved-one or a personal tragedy. A person’s psychological or spiritual condition may prevent him or her from seeing the meaning of his or her life for either a short or long period of time.
For example, the sun really exists, even though it may be covered by clouds for a while. Eventually, however, the clouds pass and the sun can again be seen. Likewise, the “clouds” of life — such as drug addition, suffering physical or emotional abuse, the loss of hope or despair — may cover or obscure the reality of meaning, but that does not mean there is no meaning to life. It is there, whether a person perceives it or not.
Objective or Real Meaning in Life
Meaning is objective. It is real, that is, outside or independent of the human person. In other words, meaning is “out there” in the world to be found by each individual. Meaning is discovered, because it is real. It is not invented by each person.3 The outside dimension of reality fulfills something inside the human person. There is a direct or one-to-one correspondence between the subject, that is, each human person, and the object, that is, the person or thing out in the world, which fulfills him or her.
A Real Need for Meaning in Life
Human beings really need meaning. In other words, there is a “hunger” or “thirst” in the human heart for meaning in life. For example, human beings desire food and water, which do, indeed, exist. Humans also desire meaning in their lives. Hence, it is reasonable that meaning really exists in order to fulfill the object of their desire.4
Of course, a person may miss his or her search for water and food and die from dehydration or starvation, but that does not prove that food and water do not exist. Rather, it only demonstrates that the person has not found the object of his or her search. In other words, the food and water were not in the place that the person had sought for them.
Similarly, if a person does not find meaning in life, that does not mean it does not exist. Rather, it means that the individual missed the object of his or her search. He or she may have been mistaken or misguided in the search for meaning. Therefore, a human being really needs meaning in order to sense of his or her life, that is, to believe that life is worthwhile or worth living. Meaning gives a person a reason to stay alive, to live for someone or something worthwhile or both.5 It is because a human being has meaning in life that he or she can truly say, “Life is worth living.”
The same point may be stated somewhat philosophically as follows: Human beings find meaning when they transcend themselves, that is, go out of themselves or beyond themselves to someone or something. When they take the focus off themselves and place it on someone or something, they find true fulfillment and, thus, meaning in their lives.6
Of course, human beings can live without meaning, but their lives are not fulfilled. They may not immediately sense that something is missing from their lives. However, because meaning is necessary for a good, fulfilling life, they may, sooner or later, sense or feel a void within themselves, an inner emptiness or, in the words of psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an “existential vacuum.”7
A person must be persistent in attempting to discover the meaning of his or her life. He or she must keep on asking in order to find the answer to life’s meaning. He or she must keep on seeking in order to find a meaning to life. He or she must keep on knocking until the “door” of the meaning opens for him or her.
There is an existential or day-to-day meaning to sustain a person in the here-and-now, in this life. There is also an ultimate meaning, which gives meaning not only to a person’s overall life but also his or her moment-by-moment life. Ultimate meaning infuses the day-to-day meaning of a person’s life. In the words of Paul Tillich,
“The anxiety of meaninglessness is anxiety about the loss of an ultimate concern, of a meaning which gives meaning to all meanings. This anxiety is aroused by the loss of a spiritual center, of an answer, however symbolic and indirect, to the question of the meaning of existence.”8
For religious persons, the ultimate meaning of life is grounded in the “Eternal Thou,” a “Higher Power” or “the Ground of Being.” That is to say, ultimate meaning comes from believing in God: knowing, loving and serving the Creator. That kind of being, an Ultimate Being, is worthy of a person’s ultimate commitment in life.
Atheists and agnostics have a need for meaning in their lives, just as much as Christians, Jews, Muslims or any other religious group that believes in God. However, atheists fulfill their need for Transcendence in different ways, such as being filled with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe; deriving meaning from loving others, from the enjoyment of music and art; and experiencing the beauty of nature.
1Viktor E. Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), pp. 50-79. In fact, the title of the section of Frankl’s book from which I have developed my ideas in this paper is “What is Meant by Meaning?”
2———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 152; cf. p. 131.
3———-, The Will to Meaning, op. cit. pp. 60-61.
4Ibid., p. 95.
5———-, The Unheard Cry for Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Washington Square Press, 1978), p. 38.
6———–, Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1967), p. 11.
7———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, op. cit., pp. 110-111.
8Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 47.