A toolkit in the search for meaning

Landau touched on many topics, including arguments for both the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of life, the role of religion, and running up against the world’s imperfections.

THE SCULPTURE ‘Le Penseur’ (The Thinker, 1903) by French sculptor Auguste Rodin is seen in the garden of the Musée Rodin in Paris (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER/REUTERS)
THE SCULPTURE ‘Le Penseur’ (The Thinker, 1903) by French sculptor Auguste Rodin is seen in the garden of the Musée Rodin in Paris
It is perhaps fitting to start a discussion on the meaning of life with a joke.
A traveler in search of wisdom learns that the wisest guru in all of India lives on top of a mighty mountain. He quickly locates it and starts to ascend its steep and craggy slopes. It’s a hard slog and by the time he reaches the summit, he is covered in cuts and bruises. There he spots the guru, who is sitting cross-legged in deep meditation.
“Oh, wise guru,” the traveler says, “I’ve come to ask you what the secret of life is.”
“Ah, yes, the secret of life,” the guru responds. “The secret of life is a teacup.”
“What? A teacup? You must be kidding me! I almost killed myself getting up here and you tell me that the meaning of life is a teacup!” The guru shrugs and says,“So maybe it isn’t a teacup.”
The joke hints at the futility of such questioning. What does “meaningful” mean? The term can be applied to just about anything. Moreover, what is “meaningful” for you might not be for me, and vice versa. Isn’t it all just subjective anyway? The joke seems to be on anyone naïve enough to expect fixed and universal answers.
Jokes aside, how would we respond to a much more serious scenario: someone who comes along and confidently tells us, “Hey you know what? Life is meaningless.”
Something similar happened to Iddo Landau several years ago. Landau, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, recalled the episode in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
He was lecturing on David Hume’s theory of causality, when, out of the blue, a female student stood up and blurted, “All that is not important because life is meaningless.”
“Everyone was silent,” Landau recollects. “You could hear a pin drop – and these were Israeli students, who have something to say about everything. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to say.”
He was tempted to dismiss the remark as off-topic. But then he hesitated. “Thank God that on this occasion I had the sense to wait a bit.” What happened next was life altering.
He asked the student’s permission to do what philosophers normally do: “Before we try to answer questions, we try to understand what the questions are.” This would require a bit of dialogue over a sensitive issue. She agreed.
“Is life completely meaningless for everyone,” he asks her, “or just for you?” After taking her time, she says of course not everyone’s life is meaningless, just hers is. Receiving her permission again, Landau then asks: “Is your life meaningless necessarily (it was destined to be this way) or is it so because of certain contingencies?” She replies that it is not necessarily meaningless; certain occurrences made it so. Last question: “Is your life irredeemably meaningless or is it possible, if some things would happen, that your life could become meaningful?” She answers that it’s not hopelessly meaningless and her circumstances could change.
After the exchange was over, the student indicated that she would like to continue the chat after class. At that point, a male student chimed in, saying these questions were more engaging than anything the class had learned before. Others nodded in agreement.
For the students, it was a chance to witness philosophy in action. Instead of a game for academic specialists, it took on urgency when applied to a real-life drama.
Sensing the potential to make a difference in the lives of his students, Landau seized the opportunity. The next year he offered an introductory class on the meaning of life. To his surprise, many enrolled. The course remained on offer for the following years. The questions it dealt with and Landau’s give and take with students form the backbone of his new book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World.
Discussing it with the Magazine, Landau touched on many topics, including arguments for both the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of life, the role of religion, and running up against the world’s imperfections, which entail some of humanity’s darkest moments.
In the end, as the Indian guru suggests, whatever meaning we derive from life may be subjective, a point Landau seems to accept. This means that anyone hoping to find the ultimate secret of life in Landau’s book will surely be disappointed. What the professor does offer, however, are some useful tools and methods, as well as compelling reasons, for anyone about to head off in search of meaning.
Meaningful or meaningless? First things first, what does “meaningful” entail for Landau? Essentially, he explains, it boils down to a question of value. “A meaningful life is one in which there is sufficiently high value or number of aspects of high value,” he says. So if someone complains, for example, that there is no meaning in life, this is at bottom a complaint that there is insufficient value in life.
Landau does not specify what is or should be of value or what amount is sufficient. Presumably, this is up to the individual. If that person has found meaning or value in ways that help him or her grow and mature, while not causing harm to others, then what more philosophizing is there to do? The problem occurs when one turns to arguments for the meaninglessness of life, for these are trickier. It’s no coincidence that Landau spends a large part of the book examining (while also refuting) their underlying assumptions.
For example, he explains, a classic argument for the meaninglessness of life goes something like this: One day we will all die and after some decades or centuries, no one will remember us, and whatever we did will also be eroded and forgotten, and this is why our lives are meaningless.
Another argument relates to our cosmic insignificance.
Maybe we can make a difference within our minuscule circles of family, friends and neighbors.
But when we realize we are just one planet in the solar system, located in a quiet suburb of our galaxy, which is merely one of countless galaxies, in an infinite universe, then our lives really seem meaningless.
Furthermore, our sun will cool down, become a Red Giant, and eventually explode. All civilization’s achievements – the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen, the sculptures of Michelangelo, or the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, for example – will all be flushed down the cosmic drain.
That’s a pretty grim reflection. How to help those who see meaninglessness in these terms? “First, I think we can still raise some children and even grandchildren until that will happen,” Landau says with a laugh. “These arguments presuppose that only what persists forever to infinity has value, and what does not has no value at all. This is problematic.”
Those who hold such ideas can be helped by thinking about things anew, Landau explains. For example, when we fully face what we know to be true, namely that our lives are anything but infinite, the reflection might help us discover other ways of perceiving time and what we leave behind. “When we will be gone and forgotten, the fact that we had a meaningful life or a meaningless one, or that we experienced moments of deep love – all that will be true forever.”
On the other hand, we can ask: Would it be a desirable to live forever, or say two hundred billion years? Few would want to live that long, Landau asserts. Some even think that death and annihilation do not suck the meaning out of life, on the contrary, they believe, these are the conditions for a meaningful life. “Otherwise we would delay everything to mañana; we wouldn’t achieve a thing.”
THUS FAR, Landau has been talking about people who are perhaps overly concerned about the big questions.
There must certainly be those who have never considered them.
The latter, he explains, can be broken down into two groups. One is made up people whose lives are quite meaningful; they just haven’t registered it. They are not necessarily shallow or empty people, just unreflective about their lives because they are content. Another group is comprised of those who lack meaning – they either do not care about it or have never considered it.
What can happen as life progresses is that a person in either group begins to feel empty. “Just as I usually don’t notice my hand until it starts to hurt,” Landau adds.
The question then becomes what does this person value? Landau knows firsthand how difficult the question can be, because at one point he felt the need to rethink his own life.
An exercise in self-dialogue “At one point, after deciding that my life was not sufficiently meaningful, I asked myself several questions, one of which was: What type of people do I admire the most? My first reply is that I admired philosophical luminaries, such as Aristotle, Plato and Kant.”
Questioning himself further, Landau came to realize that the men and women he truly respected were people like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer and Gandhi.
“I understood that what I really value is helping other people. So I tried it out and it worked for me.”
The course on the meaning of life was one way to help others, but volunteering to spend time with the terminally ill was another. A few years back, Landau took a course that trained him how to accompany cancer patients to their deaths. He is not a psychotherapist, he cautions, and when it comes to anyone hinting at suicide, he would direct them to qualified professionals.
But the kinds of questions that weigh heavily on the minds of many patients were the ones he’s been especially equipped to handle.
Jewish tradition and the Shoah While most of Landau’s students are secular, the cancer patients he works with come from mixed backgrounds. “It is very interesting that some people who cope with cancer become more religious, while others become much more secular,” he observes.
Most of the people he engages with are secular, many of whom used to be religious. Yet they continue to struggle with their faith.
Though he doesn’t consider himself a believer, he sees religion as an excellent way of suffusing life with value. It helps people forgive themselves for all sorts of things they inflict on themselves, he explains. “Secular people have this work of forgiving themselves to do on their own, and it is not easy.”
People have terrible regrets about trivial matters, he continues. They behave cruelly toward themselves, thinking that their lives are completely ruined by some moral failing.
With religious people, the problem is easier to handle.
“I point out that Moses had his problems and was punished severely by God. After leading the Israelites to freedom, he was prohibited from entering the Promised Land.
And still he is considered the greatest Jew who ever lived.”
Along these lines, Landau mentions a chat he had with a man who lost his son in a car accident. The father was living in another country at the time of the crash. Still, the man felt he failed in his duty to protect his child.
“The whole thing was a bit crazy,” Landau says, “for the only entity that could have prevented the crash in Western culture would be God.” In a sense, the father expected himself to be like God.
Landau then tried out another philosophical tool. He asked the man if he would accuse someone else in a similar situation of being a bad parent.
Only after universalizing or de-personalizing his situation, did the man catch his blunder. “He would have never treated or judged anyone else as harshly as he judged himself.”
Such people often do not see beyond a few options, Landau explains. They cling to the extremes, contemplating either suicide or just continuing a life of utter misery. The possibility of a radical change does not enter their minds.
A SIMILAR dynamic occurred during one of humanity’s lowest points. In his 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl described what life was like inside a Nazi work camp. Frankl, an Austrian Jew and noted psychologist, survived the Holocaust after years of inhuman conditions and hard labor.
Speaking of his fellow prisoners he writes: “Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence.
They preferred to close their eyes and live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.”
Frankl decided to help prisoners take hold of their inner lives so they could at least live meaningfully, even under the pain of torture, famine, and death.
Indeed, what immediately strikes the reader is Frankl’s use of the word “opportunity” in such harrowing conditions.
“It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist,” he writes. “Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.”
Though Landau disagrees with Frankl on some issues, he says he learned a great deal from his work.
In his own book, Landau talks about growing up in Jerusalem in the late 1950s. Many of his neighbors, including some relatives, were Holocaust survivors.
“I remember being impressed as a teenager by the ability some of them had, even some of those who had lost their families and gone through very traumatic experiences, to lead meaningful (and sometimes even happy) lives. Many of them had gone on to create new families and new lives.
“I am certain that they never stopped feeling intense sorrow and having painful memories, but some of them found or created happiness as well, and according to what they told me, led lives that were happy overall. Others could not be said to have had happy lives, but did have meaningful ones. Meeting some of these people in my youth left a strong impression on me that has lasted to this day.”