Meditations on death: Meaning is made, not found

Image by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine passed away. We worked together on a project on the effects of receiving hugs and soothing self-touch on stress. He was in his forties and left behind a five-year old son. 

I wasn’t that close with him, but still felt a bond with him and was greatly saddened by the news of his passing.

His funeral was today, and it was the first one that I attended where I really cared. My colleague was a bit of a mentor for me as he taught me a lot about data analysis and statistics. When my grandparents died a few years ago, I felt nothing because I didn’t have much of a bond with them when growing up. 

One day, my colleague was running and simply dropped dead on his way through the park. The paramedics tried to reanimate him, but to no avail, sending ripples through his family, his friends, and his colleagues.   

Listening to the pastor reiterate some of the man’s oddities and stages in life, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had touched anyone’s lives enough so they would show up to my funeral.  

Would they also play Johnny Cash? Would some people cry? I am sure my family and some friends would mourn my death. 

The funeral also made me consider my own mortality. I could fall on the tracks on my way home, be hit by a train, and die. The last time I saw my girlfriend, the last time I called my parents could in fact be the last time, and this is of course true every time, and it will be true one time.

I am aware there is nothing new about these thoughts. Stoics have long taught “memento mori”–remember death. Meditate on your own death, so you may be grateful for your own life and won’t waste it.

As humans, we have a need for stories that affirm who we are. In fact, we are so strongly predisposed to find meaning, to connect the dots, that we invent stories. Stories that, when considered rationally, aren’t true. Sometimes where we see meaning or a pattern, there really was just chance or chaos.

When a die shows an unexpected number of sixes, we can’t help but wonder what is wrong with it. Or we might think that further sixes aren’t to be expected from now as we’ve already seen enough. 

As long as it is a fair die, it doesn’t care about the stories we create around it. It just unfolds its events that follow no command but a probability distribution. 

When something bad happens, we want it to make sense. We want to know why it happened. Thinking that it meant nothing, that it may be the result of some cosmic joke that is randomness is uncomfortable at best. So we turn to religion or to some other narrative to make sense of what happened. 

I process my colleague’s death by writing this article hoping that it will create some form of meaning for me, even though in a hundred years, or seen from another galaxy, my life or what I do is insignificant. 

The lesson here is that we invent our own meaning. We are dreamers who make sense of our reality by inventing stories about whatever happens. And in doing so, we create much needed identity and structure for ourselves.

Perhaps that’s good enough for a life. By dreaming up our own meaning, we escape the nihilist that deems life meaningless.

I have no idea what the meaning of life is, and I doubt anyone does, but perhaps this search is futile–too difficult and grand a task.

Maybe it’s enough to show up every day and work on those stories about what life means to us. If you think about it, it’s not even a choice. Because if we stopped making up stories, stopped making sense, we would surely despair and lack any motivation to ever leave the bed.

Strangely, this can be liberating. If there is no grand design, if we get to decide what’s meaningful, we can feel empowered to create our own purpose. 

This is what psychologists call the difference between meaning in life and meaning of life. Meaning in life is a life that we experience as meaningful. Meaning of life is the objective meaning of life. Don’t look for it. You won’t find it.

Instead, find purpose (a sense that your life is going somewhere or that you’re contributing to some greater cause).

Realize that your life “matters” when you create joy or reduce pain in others.

And finally, don’t go alone because meaning is found in connection to others, not in isolation.