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A friend asked me that, ¿What is the meaning of life? It would be relapse of me not to quote the wisest of men:

to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms – Genghis Khan

That was a joke. This sad tyranny of political correctness we live in forces me to preemptive disclaimers.

There are a thousand clever things to say when asked the meaning of life, but those answers are more replies than explanations. In cases like that, i tend to assume the question is defective, that it does not in fact dig into what it means to dig.

Meaning is an idea from Semiotics, and only symbols have meanings. Asking the meaning of life assumes life has any meaning, which is to say, this question treats life as a symbol.

You can take life as a symbol and you can interpret it, but it is not a symbol of itself.

Because if life was a symbol, we’d solve the whole thing just looking up [life] in the dictionary, and 261 thousand philosophers would be out of their jobs. Maybe we just ask the meaning of life because we are so used to looking stuff up in the dictionary.

But we do gleam a certain need to know behind this question. There is a longing that motivates this question. But this longing is nebulous, it is indistinct. Or inversely, the question reveals very little of this longing, this question is incapable of investigating into our souls what exactly is it that we want to know.

For, you know, i do ask myself this, too. The world being as it is, i do it all the time. The pungent meaninglessness of accustomed bullshit makes one actually beg for meaning, most of the time. It would be lovely to be able to go to McD and get yourself a medium sized McMeaning, for even a bad answer to The Meaning of Life™ would be pleasant enough.

Either way, i do share the longing to know that motivates this question. So, when i respond that the question is badly composed, i do not mean i don’t understand it — though i do not, indeed, but that is not the problem, and it is also not something that happens only with this question, and also i do also guess that, in a way, the very friend who asked the question does not understand it, either, as much as our world doesn’t also — what i mean is that the question is not revealing enough. It answers little, which might sound weird, but that’s how it goes: Questions do explain, answers do confuse.

Since life isn’t a symbol, we could reformulate philosophically the question in a myriad of ways to try and make it more revealing:

  • What is the motive of life?
  • What is the ambition o life?
  • What is its value?
    • Which primarily is equivalent to “what does make life worth the bother?”
    • (But which we could also deviously turn into “how much does it cost to hire a killer?”)
  • What is the most pleasant way to live?
  • What makes life beautiful?
  • And, to punch low, we could look up “Purpose” in a thesaurus and ask “What is the {intent, will, desire, tendency, destiny, stand, principle, ground, mainspring, stimulus, resolve} of life?

I still feel, though, that all of these are reifications. Reify means to grossly simplify in an obscuring way. As preemptive disclaimer, i’d say they are all useful reifications, and i do guess you could follow these paths into better, more fulfilling answers to the question. They might be simplistic pieces of a non-simplistic puzzle.

To me, the only obvious non-simplistic answer to what is the meaning of life is: Dancing.

Which is to say, if life has meaning, this meaning is not in words but in life as lived, and therefore it is not enough to know the meaning of life, you absolutely must have meaning in life. Not only act, but act with meaning — and dance people believe “action with meaning” is the very definition of dance.

But in another way, this is also a reification, albeit a lesser one. Because:

  • dancing = life + meaning
  • meaning = life + dancing
  • life = meaning + dancing

In the end i only reordered the words. The meaning of life has to be found in life, is like saying (life = life). My friend calls it “the old and tired existentialist tautology”.

And this is a big problem, because when you’re down and low going through depression, if someone says that life is meaningful in itself and that you should take pleasure even in breathing, this is just so much empty talk.

To try and make philosophy with a hammer, we could reshape the question as:

¿What kind of answer to ¿What is the meaning of life? would help you through depression?

And my best guess is a hug.

And i say this not as a joke. Maybe all the meaning you can ask for in this life and in this world is a hug. But it is not just that when you receive a good hug you feel like as if life had any meaning, it is more than that. I can not say this of every hug, and i also guess that in places besides Brasil it would be even harder to get a hug good enough to qualify (just figured it right now after translating most of the thing), but some hugs are meaning in themselves.

This is more important (and philosophical) than it sounds, because we have no meaning alone by ourselves. The meaning is not in the individual.

(Tragically an overpopulated world is a very alone world, because human beings are dangerous creatures and lots of them means lots of danger, so that times of crowds are times to hide, both in body and in action.)

Beyond “The question is badly composed”, maybe i go all the way to “the question is impossible”. Maybe what i’m saying is that no one can really reach the meaning of life as much as no one can really know what is it like to live life in someone else’s place. I do not know what it is like to see through your eyes or to taste with your tongue. So i must keep on doing the effort of trying new points of view to maybe (and only maybe) have points of view that are closer to yours. It is like climbing the chair in Dead Poets Society, but just climbing loads and loads of chairs.

And the more you open up your points of view to get closer to the other, the farther you get, for human beings are lazy and usually do not have multiple points of view for lack of trying.

I should admit that i do not know what is the meaning of life. Certainly neither did Sartre or Nietzsche or Heraclitus. But if i had to answer, like if it was a questionnaire or something, i’d say the meaning of life is the exercise of going out of oneself and going out of one’s own navel gazing.

To get extra points, i’d add that the callousness of the present day world makes this exercise much harder, and that we must fight this callousness, and that sometimes a good hug is the only way to fight. (And even if a whazapp message is not as good as, sometimes it is good enough — and this is a tank you blog post to Mr. Magoo).


One Comment

  1. It’s really a very nice post. It resonates a lot with what I feel about this topic too. Thanks for translating it.

    I once tried to write it down what I think about “the meaning of life” thing or rather “the purpose of life” thing:

    Some people read my posts but almost never answer and I feel pretty lonely because of that, because I feel that no one can understand what I say or no one sees it from the same point of view. But now when I read you post, I do not have much to say either, but I totally love your post. When you read something that resonates with you it is already like a hug. But it is also like you said a letter in the bottle. So it is more like an asynchronous hug. So here is my asynchronous hug-response.

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