Critically Thinking About Legacy and the Meaning of Life

Developing meaning through goal and value attainment.

Posted Dec 06, 2019

Ahh yes, the meaning of life—every philosopher’s goal is to come to understand it, at least in some way, shape or form. Indeed, it goes beyond philosophy—psychologists, biologists, sociologists even mathematicians have thought about traversing the age-old question. With that, you don’t have to be involved in academia at all to think about your purpose on this Earth. Now, I wouldn’t be so bold as to even suggest a meaning here, but I will do my best to present a critical evaluation.  

Through the ages, many have made their offerings regarding to what the meaning of life refers—be it to dedicate it to a higher being; to find a means of transcending what we know of as humanity towards an enhanced state; or "42." The list does not end, which in turn reflects how tough a question it is to answer. Given the surplus of possible meanings, maybe it’s worthwhile to approach this from the opposite end, almost like a reverse-engineered solution strategy. By this, I mean, let’s assume for a moment that there is no meaning—that there is no great purpose. Now, before assumptions are made that this is piece will go down the clichéd route of becoming a love letter to nihilism, I must clarify that this is not the case. Though the concept of nihilism has gained notoriety in recent times, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek, counter-culture sort of way, we can bypass that route here, take a detour through existentialism and make a pit-stop at absurdism; specifically, the philosophy of Albert Camus.

Though he didn’t use the term for his own philosophy, Camus has come to be known as an absurdist philosopher. In fact, his Myth of Sisyphus is one of absurdism’s fundaments. For those unfamiliar with the myth, Sisyphus was punished by the gods through being tasked with rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it then roll all the way down—repeatedly—conducting this exercise for all eternity. In his philosophy, Camus likened our everyday lives to Sisyphus. Each day we are tasked with boulders of our own—be it work, school, household chores or caring for another—and each day, we are doomed to repeat these tasks (both the requisite and leisure), in an uncertain, absurd world, over and over.

Is this a positive, uplifting outlook on life? Of course not; but what such a scenario actually does—that is, perceiving life as a Sisyphean tragedy—presents a problem for us to solve. How can we escape the absurdity?

According to Camus, the solution is to “imagine Sisyphus happy.” Thus, if we look at Sisyphus, not as the victim of a tragic fate, rather as a man who enjoys his work, despite his absurd existence; then, perhaps this isn’t such a negative outlook on our existence or potential lack of meaning. Essentially, we create meaning through our own existence and interpretation. We must imagine Sisyphus happy, like we must imagine ourselves happy. But, what is happiness? This is yet another question I am not so bold as to think I can answer here; but, for the purpose of this argument, let’s consider it the attainment or experience of something of value. As we discussed in a previous post on this blog, value is a subjective thing; and so, happiness or, at the very least, contentment, is subjective—it is dictated by our interpretation.

For some of you, this is no great revelation; but, for regular readers of this blog, you will know that basing your thinking about something you truly care about on your own experience or subjective interpretation is the enemy of critical thought. How can it be that one’s subjectivity can take the forefront here? I think the most considered answer begins with the ill-structured nature of the problem—what is happiness and, from there, what is the meaning of life? There is no one answer, and none of those presented in past works may be necessarily palatable to any given person—which is perhaps a scenario more tragic than the initial reading of Sisyphus. Imagine learning the meaning of life and finding yourself either underwhelmed by it or simply valuing things inconsistent with said meaning. So, what do you do then? In this sense, perhaps the greatest gift we have is not knowing any meaning. As much as that might be preferred, nevertheless, it brings us back to the beginning, in a way—is there even a meaning to life? Answering this question is probably an even tougher task than the original, because of its dichotomous nature. It’s either yes or no; there are no real means of deciphering which. At least with a question like, what is the meaning of life?, one can posit a suggestion and argue for it based on whatever evidence might be available—sure, it remains an ill-structured problem, but at least it's one that can be argued. However, with a question like is there a meaning to life?, there is no real, strong evidence to support or refute. Those who favour "yes" might see evidence in everyday things and use those as examples. On the other hand, though those who favour "no" can easily refute these examples as being just everyday things that occur randomly in nature.  

I myself don’t personally believe there is any great, overarching meaning to existence; but I am not in any way opposed to this proposed solution: we must create meaning for ourselves, we must imagine ourselves happy. However, this does not fully address the existence aspect of the initial question. Much like how we needed to address the concept of ‘no meaning’, we must also address the concept of ‘no existence’ – death is an inevitability that often scares us. So, how can we exist happily knowing that there will be a time of no existence for us?

From a very objective, biological position, we must consider that our purpose is simply to exist—to eat, sleep and reproduce and everything in between. Indeed, evolutionary psychology focuses a great deal on the reproductive aspect of this objective stance. But, what about those who do not or will not have children? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be about producing a child, per se; rather creating a legacy in which our values and successes can live on.

I admit my thinking may be biased here because of recent experiences in my own life. The first experience took place in recent months, when I had a great conversation about a quote from the TV show Westworld—"You only live as long as the last person to remember you." Now, I’m not sure that this was the first time that this aphorism was used, but nevertheless, it’s not the source that matters here, rather its meaning to this discussion. That is, to help overcome the fear and anxiety of non-existence, we must create not only meaning in our own lives, but also a means of existing as long as we can. Thus, by leaving a legacy, by leaving something of great benefit or meaningfulness behind, we will be remembered and can exist on even if our corporeal existence has ended.

The second experience that may bias my thinking here was more recent. My wife and I welcomed a healthy, happy little girl into the world and we’re eternally delighted with and grateful for her existence. People who have children will say many things about what it does and how it changes life; but, I won’t get into all of that. But, I will say that I found myself agreeing with the common belief that your perspective on life changes when you become a parent; and so, this concept of legacy enters my mind much more often than it previously did. My goals now are less personal; rather, more focused on her health and happiness. I form my goals now so that I can imagine her happy.

But, does this create a dilemma? In ways, yes—though I want to be happy in my life, her happiness comes before mine, even if they’re at odds with one another. So, am I now stuck in my existence pushing a boulder up a hill, watching it fall back down before repeating the task for eternity? No, because in my pursuit of her happiness, I am creating a legacy for myself. My thoughts and values will be shared with my daughter and hopefully with her children (and her children’s children), as will tales and whatever physical evidence remain of my actions and accomplishments. By treating my existence in terms of creating a legacy, my fears related to non-existence decrease (don’t get me wrong, they haven’t disappeared altogether) and I can focus more now on imagining myself happy, which is through making my family happy.     

Okay, yes, that’s a bit on the sappy side; but it lends us an example of how we can look upon a Sisyphean existence in a positive light. Maybe there is no meaning and we’re all stuck here with our boulders. But, if we take the time to identify what is important to us, what we value and the goals we wish to achieve, we create meaning for ourselves; and perhaps, if we ‘succeed’ in our existence through attaining these values and goals, we can create legacies for ourselves that allow us to live on beyond the end of our physical existence. This is by no means a ground-breaking piece of advice, but this evaluation does provide us a context for why it’s useful to live life in such a manner.