Photo of person standing under Milky Way galaxyTo see the Milky Way stretched across a clear night sky is awe-inspiring. Made even more so by knowledge of the vastness of the universe and the variety of ‘heavenly’ bodies on show. Sadly the Milky Way is no longer a nightly vista for most of us. Its splendor has been greatly reduced by air pollution and the lights of cities, industry and urban sprawl.

Pondering the mystery of existence under a clear night sky helped our ancestors to dream up stories that gave meaning to their lives. Although we have lost such an awe-inspiring canopy, we are still moved by other core elements of existence, namely nature and human interactions.

Those whose world-view includes supernatural entities and ‘spirituality’ – whatever that means – sometimes criticise Humanism as being a shallow life philosophy. They think that because we Humanists value reasoned thinking and science, our world-view excludes any sense of mystery; but that is not so.

We grasp that there are limits to human understanding, a fact that requires us to live with uncertainty. However, we Humanists can still be deeply moved by experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, just as religious people are – a baby’s first smile, music, works of art, poetry, a full moon over water, the bush wet with rain.

The philosopher Richard Norman in his book On Humanism examines the inadequacy of using the word ‘spirituality’ when we want to discuss the mystery and meaning of life. Instead he suggests five things we know from experience that give life depth and meaning. These are:

The satisfaction of creative achievement. Satisfaction in the sense of ‘I did this’ can be derived from work or leisure activities like writing, gardening, painting, or music-making.

The excitement of discovery. Norman points out that we are by nature curious and seek to ‘know’ and understand what we encounter in the natural world. Science, historical research and philosophical argument are formal examples of seeking to know.

Relationships with others. As social animals, co-operation and interaction with others is both essential for our survival and rewarding in the mutual satisfaction that socialising brings.

The life of the emotions. Love of parents, children, friends and lovers bring joy and delight. While more negative emotions of anger and fear add to the complexity of a meaningful life.

The enjoyment of beauty in art and nature. At different times we are all moved by the beauty of nature and the many interpretations of existence that the work of creative artists put before us.

In putting these experiences forward as central to a meaningful life, Norman is tackling the accusation that without religious spirituality a Humanist life lacks depth. We know that is not so. As our HSV website puts it, ‘for the one life we have’, Humanists say yes to life’s opportunities. In the manner of the Romans who would invoke carpe diem or ‘seize the day’, we try to lead productive, responsible yet enjoyable lives.

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 56, No.4, May 2017

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2017 Rosslyn Ives

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3 Responses to What gives life meaning?

  1. J says:

    Then there’s the refrain from Peterson who suggests that the only thing that reliably or sustainably orientates individuals towards meaning is the voluntary adoption of responsibility. I think there is something to that. Those other factors might contribute but the contribution of some, like appreciation of beauty is transitory and others like relationship with other can both add but also detract from having meaning in your life.

  2. Leslie Allan says:

    Thanks Ros for putting it so clearly and succinctly.

  3. Lindsay Coker says:

    So well put. Those values stand not only the test of time, but the vicissitudes of life. After 86 years, I can find no better delight in life than to write, both poetry and non-fiction, to teach, walk, talk, be with like-minded people, and to contemplate the wonders spread all around us. This has led me to stronger bonds with others, which have an almost extra-dimensional power to them, one stemming from the past and spreading into the future.
    To contemplate death is comforting and without terror or sadness – something I believe many of my believer acquaintances are at a loss to grasp.

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