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April 19, 2016

In Search of the Meaning of Life

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Animals are innocent; they live by the book of nature. As far as we know, they don't ask themselves about the meaning of life. But for better or worse, we humans tend to ask that question a lot, especially as we grow older.

“Why should the-meaning-of-life question raise its head in the era of modernity?” asks Prof. Terry Eagleton of the University of Manchester in his recent book The Meaning of Life, A Very Short Introduction.

In response he writes: “Partly, one suspects, because the problem with modern life is that there is too much meaning, as well as too little. We find ourselves … in something of a vicious circle. Once traditional beliefs begin to crumble in the face of historical crisis, the meaning-of-life question tends to thrust itself in the fore. But the very fact that the question is now so prominent provides a wide range of responses … this bewildering diversity of solutions then serves to diminish the credibility of any one of them … Feeling it important to raise the meaning-of-life question, then, is a sign that it is going to be hard to answer it.”

But the renowned Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997) based his therapy for treating mental disorder on the failure of sufferers to find meaning for, and a sense of responsibility to, their lives.

By contrast, Sigmund Freud found the root of these disorders in the anxiety caused by conflicting and unconscious motives. Freud stressed frustration in the “will-to-pleasure” and in sexual life, while Frankl stressed frustration in the “will-to-meaning.”

Dr. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as Holocaust survivor, believed that striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful, motivating force driving humans.

His method, called Logotherapy, was described in the now-classic 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl would sometimes ask patients why they did not commit suicide. From their answers he extracted guidelines for his psychotherapy. He then tried to “weave these slender threads of broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility.”

He went on to explore how people can be helped to achieve this distinctively human capacity. How can one awaken in a patient the feeling that he or she is responsible to life for something, however grim the circumstances may be?

Few questions are as rewarding to contemplate as those related to the meaning of life. But perhaps the reality is that everything has been said already; our problem is that so little of it is understood.

For those of us brought up and educated in the West, for example, many may have lost sight of the solid grounds for faith in God and tradition that historically provided people with a sense of meaning in life.

In his book Understanding Islam, Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) wrote: “The answer, just like the Truth, is both single and infinite… faith in God and Tradition is not childish and outmoded mythology, but a science that is terribly real.”

Schuon, a Swiss philosopher, poet and painter who wrote numerous books on religion and spirituality, believed that the path to understanding the meaning of life is found through logic and love. He wrote, “The manifestation of Truth is a mystery of Love, just as, conversely, the content of Love is a mystery of Truth … If Man is Will, God is Love; if Man is Intelligence, God is Truth. If Man is Will, fallen and powerless, God is redeeming Love; if Man is Intelligence darkened and gone astray, God is the Illuminating.”

“Like every Revelation,” he continued, “the Qur’an is a flashing and crystalline expression of that which is ‘supernaturally natural’ to man, that is, of our situation in the Universe. It is for this reason God in the Qur’an is Noor, the Light (24:35), helping us to navigate in the darkness of our earthly exile.”

In this context, God is the Being who continually brings into existence all that is contained within the Universe, and who exercises a degree of control over human history.

As Prof. William Montgomery Watt (1909-2006) of the University of Edinburgh wrote in Religious Truth for Our Time:

“If one likes to call this conception of God a theory, that is allowable, but then it must be insisted that this is a theory which has been the basis for the meaning of life for millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims over many generations, and has proved satisfactory. Thus it is a theory that is justified by its fruits.”

I could go on with many more profound and insightful reflections by great thinkers who were intrigued by questions arising from the human effort to define the meaning of life. But the last word on the subject is a personal one – yours.

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