The Curious Case of a Meaningful Life

Life is a series of random events. Your life has been a series of random events. You did not choose when you were born, who your parents were, or where you lived. You did not choose the house you grew up in, the school you went to, or the food you ate. You may have gotten to choose your friends, but that was limited by where you lived and what school you attended. As you grew up, you may have been able to express more preferences over the food you ate, who your friends were, the classes you took, or the extracurricular activities in which you participated, but you were still limited by the location of your house and your family, as well as their income. If you graduated high school, you may have faced the first real choice that was all yours; going to college.

Don’t get too excited, though, because like all the other events in your life, this one was not all of your doing either. The choice to go to college is dependent upon your intellectual aptitude, as is the college you go to. If you don’t like school, college is a bad idea, so you don’t go. If you like school, but aren’t intellectually gifted, Harvard is out of the question. Even if you are intellectually gifted, Harvard is expensive and may be out of the question anyway. You are also limited by your personal interests. If you love graphic design, going to a school that specializes in engineering would probably not be the best idea. Let’s say you do decide on a college that suits you, what then?

From that point on, all of the friends you make, and even if you find someone special and marry them, all depends on the fact that you chose that particular university. Let’s say you are a trained engineer upon graduation. You are not likely to get hired on somewhere as a Cold War Historian. Your current and future job opportunities are restricted to engineer, lest you get retrained or receive advanced training in a related field. You could also do something that is a far simpler occupation, like selling men’s shoes, but that would be far less money, so the choice is not likely to be made.

Did you find someone special along the way? Did you get married? Are you planning on having kids? The kids you have with your spouse are a random combination of your DNA, so even though you chose to have kids, you do not get to choose the kids you have. Did you choose your neighborhood, or was it the most affordable option in the nicest neighborhood outside of the city in which you work? Did you choose the route you take to work every day, or is it simply the fastest option given the outlay of the roads? Did someone cut you off on your way? Did they do this to spite you, or did they do it because they are a bad driver in a hurry? Did it make you late to work or cause a collision? These are all random events. You have some choice in the matter, but the vast majority of the circumstances surrounding your choices are out of your control. So, why am I bringing this up?

The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. It is so good at taking the randomness of our environment and organizing and codifying it to make sense of everything that when we see certain patterns or symbols regularly we stop consciously recognizing them. We do this with stop signs on a regular basis. If one said “Spot,” would you notice? Probably not. This is also why traffic cones and signs are bright orange; you are more likely to notice the change. But, how is this relevant to the topic at hand?

We like to believe that everything happens for a reason. The truth is, we ascribe meaning to all of the random things that happen to us. This is how we cope with a reality that is completely random and chaotic. We seek order externally, and we create it within our own lives. We have places for our dishes, our cleaning supplies, our clothes, our garbage, and even the rooms in which we sleep every night. We set up schedules so our bodies can operate optimally, and so we can interact with other people effectively. We eschew randomness at every opportunity. We even avoid people that are flakey and cannot show up on time or cancel on plans often. If you are like me, you have found that the more regimented and regular you can make your life and behaviors, the greater your functionality and chances of success are. These are choices I have made, and I value them. I have chosen to give them meaning.

Another, and possibly detrimental, occurrence when trying to make sense of our random world is to believe in a guiding power. God, or some other spiritual entity, has a plan for all of us, and what happens to you is what is best for you according to their plan. This is an incredibly dangerous mindset to cultivate as it takes away the agency you do have for the choices you make. If some supernatural entity has the control over the things in my life, then it doesn’t matter what choices I make. Everything happens for a reason, and it is all according to his plan. So, I will just go along for the ride. We become passengers in our own lives. I would argue this leads to a great deal of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. While we may not have complete control over our lives, there is great power and self-satisfaction in knowing we have the capacity to make the best possible choices for ourselves within the circumstances before us. Let that empower you.

As we progress through the randomness of life, remember, anything that has meaning in our lives does so because we have chosen to give it. A meaningful life is something entirely of our own creation. Take time to think of all of the people, places, events, and objects in your life that you value. Why do you value them? What is the meaning or significance they hold in your life? How have they changed who you are, and was it for the better or worse? How have you impacted the lives of others? Are you a meaningful person in the lives of other people? If you are, know that you are because they have chosen to make you so. We may live in a world of random events, but there is strength and power in knowing we have the capacity to choose how those events and people impact our lives. Use that power to make your life better. Give meaning to the events that make you better, and give meaning to the people that give you meaning in their lives and want the best for you. Your flourishing is within your own capacity.

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