At age 27, adolescence and senescence can seem impossibly, at times melodramatically, close to one another. Three months no longer pass without someone one knows getting engaged. It is beautiful to see people build their futures and array their most intimate spheres. It is also one of the signposts that remind one of the ceaseless movement of age. Yet, even for those of us still living as students, or unmarried, or residing in our parents’ homes, we are not frozen in ‘age’ until we reach such signposts. Perception and meaning of time and age may vary, but the finiteness of one’s life remains, impelling us to set goals and construct our futures in such a way that makes best use of borrowed time.
What then measures successful use or enjoyment of a finite time that holds nearly infinite possibility? The paradoxical limitlessness and limitedness of our existence is perhaps what leads generation after generation, despite its idiosyncratic rebellions, to recourse to many of its inherited, conventional understandings of ‘success.’
Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is an account of the psychological experience of being a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust and a short exposition of Frankl’s psychotherapeutic method, logotherapy. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who saw a meaning to life even through the blackest suffering, in conditions that afforded him only the slimmest chance of survival. Why should each person at Auschwitz not lose hope or give himself over to the call of death that ever-hounded him, even when continuance of life promised desperate pain and horror, witness to man’s capacity for depravity, and little hope that such struggle would result in survival of the camp?
To this, Frankl answers: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.” What Frankl meant is that each person at the camp had someone outside the camp who longed for him to live or had an uncompleted project that only he could finish, and that, in this way, each life, in its uniqueness, has a meaning. Additionally, each man’s uniqueness also gave meaning to his suffering. Frankl writes: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge that even in his suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
Frankl’s convictions and his school of psychotherapy emphasize the need for each individual to be responsible to life, positing that this responsibleness is the “very essence of human existence.” Frankl writes: “As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked…[E]ach man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” While this position leaves one’s meaning open to infinite and changing interpretation, it harnesses the finiteness of life toward action rather than pessimism.
And yet, this feels at once too great and too small for me. It is too great in that it seems to privilege meaning as belonging to action and conduct, whereas I often feel it most strongly in the mere fact of existence. Albert Camus draws upon the myth of Sisyphus to explain this. A sinner, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again, over and over in endless succession. How meaningless his task must seem, but, Camus tells us, we must imagine Sisyphus as happy. He feels relief when a cold breeze passes, and may see birds flying overhead. Though his toil is meaningless, life is not.
Simultaneously, Frankl’s meaning is too small for me. He provides one with a reason for survival and endows each person’s survival with sense in what otherwise can seem to be a senseless, indifferent procession of time. But, unlike Frankl and so many he knew and loved, I am not ceaselessly faced with the prospect of my annihilation. I am not witness to the horrors he knew. I already want to survive, and my reasonable expectation is that I will be alive tomorrow. The fact that I have people who love me and intellectual projects that only I can complete may endow my life with inalienable meaning, but is it enough to give my life purpose?
Of course only I can complete my own intellectual projects, because I was the one who created their scope and terms. As such, another person’s intellectual project is as unique as mine. The people who love me love others too, and will meet still others who though they cannot replace me exactly can substitute and best me in their own unique ways. I do not wish to be more valuable than others, but uniqueness hardly provides me with purpose, though it may endow my life with meaning.
Am I just left then with the fact of my existence? Should I thus become a hedon, seeking to consume and experience all dimensions to being alive? Yes, of course, that will be one of the markers of the success of my life: its depth and range. But how self-serving that would be if it were one’s overriding purpose in life. When I have a family, my purpose will most likely be the care and creation of that family, but is that then a constructed purpose? Do I have to create external responsibilities in order to find purpose in my self? Perhaps so.
Perhaps the meaning of life resides additionally in its bottomless, infinite potential. And I will manifest my responsibleness to both that meaning and to the beauty of mere existence through my acts of creation. I will honor the multitude of life by availing of it to create my own personal worlds within it, and I will remember its beauty by seeking to constantly draw it into further creative iterations. My purpose will be creation, and those creations will vibrate along dimensions large and small. And perhaps in this way limitedness and limitlessness, meaning and purpose, finiteness and infinity will be invoked in tandem, in constant reinforcement of one another.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University