Upon leaving religion many people feel a sudden and rather terrifying loss of meaning in their lives. Since almost every religion informs man that he is part (a crucial part) of a divine plan, and that the universe and everything in it was created with him in mind, the very act of breathing for the believer becomes a meaningful one. For the believer, doing a good deed is forever recorded in heaven by an all-seeing Being who is intimately concerned and in love with him. His life is ever-infused with a divine purpose that supersedes this world entirely. Is there any meaning more fulfilling than believing oneself to be an emissary of the one true God?
It is therefore obvious, that someone who ascribed to these beliefs for part of his life will feel a blow to his ego unparalleled when he accepts, however reluctantly, that he is just a creature living a finite life, ever-awaiting the grave which may come at any time. His good deeds seem to lose their grandeur as does the whole of his being. The world begins to look gloomy. He becomes cynical about words like "hope." For a brief time his life may, in his mind, cease to matter.
I experienced these feelings upon the rejection of my childhood faith. I had spent 24 years engulfed in the "reality" of my beliefs, and "knew" that I was destined for greatness. I felt that I was an important part of the divine scheme and would constantly seek to uncover the purpose that I had been fashioned by God to accomplish. I would be lying if I said that it did not cross my mind once or twice that perhaps I was the Messiah. Every action that I carried out, I "knew" was of universal importance. I was mending a world filled with sin, a universe of darkness, and I was helping usher in the new age, the age of redemption.
When I left my faith I was broken. I would take long walks trying to understand life anew. How could the world have no meaning? How could my life have no meaning?
It did not take me too long to discover that it did, in fact, have meaning. Perhaps not the eternal and ultimate meaning I had attributed to my life before, but meaningful my life certainly was. To be there for my loved ones. To give to humanity. To be compassionate and kind. To seek truth relentlessly. To write and teach. To help others with their problems, however, I could. Yes, the meaning in my life was not hard to find once I understood what to look for. Of course, everything listed above can be stripped from me, however unlikely that may be, and therefore, the question arises: Is it worth anything at all?
This question is almost meaningless (pun intended) for it would be difficult to find a person who has no meaning to live for. He may not be aware of the meaning of his existence, as many of us are not, but he cannot say with certainty that his existence is futile.
Does life itself have meaning? Well no, but our subjective meaning should not be effected by this conclusion. In fact, we should realize how important it is for us to find meaning in our lives, for no one will do it for us. We must actively create the meaning in our lives. For some, spending their every waking moment reciting the words of a prayer book is meaningful. For others it is pushing the boundaries of the universe through scientific discovery. For yet others, it is creating something that will outlast them. To find, or rather create meaning, in my opinion, is the key to unlock what, for lack of a better word, can be called: Happiness.
Happiness may be a difficult word to define, as most words describing emotions are, but mankind has been relentlessly seeking it since the beginning of time. If we were to do a poll of people who claimed to be genuinely happy, I would be willing to bet, that the majority of them would quickly be able to define the meaning in their lives. The two are inseparable. I believe the sadness that so permeates many people, is due, at least in part, to a misunderstanding of the linkage between these two concepts. If we are going to be happy, we must have meaning.
Meaning need not be eternal nor of universal importance for it to matter. Subjective, finite meaning may be all we have, but it is more than enough. For the fact that something ends, does not rid it of it's potential meaning. How foolish is man who worries about the grave, whilst life passes him by! Though this is a common human failing which leads inevitably to despair, it can be rectified by simply being aware of life, and the meaning which you have cultivated within it. The pursuit should therefore be not of happiness, but of meaning.
If this is the only life we get, if we will all end up in the grave and be gone forever, should happiness not be the only goal of man? However, as I have presented here, happiness is not to be found without having meaning in one's life. The question of how to find meaning in a otherwise meaningless world deserves an essay of it's own, one I hope to write in the near future. I only wish to present here the importance of understanding that even though we may only live once, your life can have meaning. I also hoped to present the unbreakable connection between both meaning and happiness.
However, fleeting life may be, it can be meaningful, and we can be happy.