2012 – National High School 2nd Place
Nicole Park, Oklahoma.
What is the Meaning of Life?
There is a distinct difference between existence and life. The meaning of existence is when one passively lets one’s time on earth pass by. Existence is simply being on the earth. This effectively reduces one to merely being born to die. In contrast, the meaning of life—one’s essence—is the process by which one perceives one’s own existence, realizes the need for a purpose and subsequently creates a purpose, and makes efforts to achieve that purpose.
The first stage in developing essence is perceiving existence. One has to understand that there is nothing unique in any respect about one’s existence; one is born for no reason and dies for no reason. At this stage one must perceive that one is simply a mass with anatomical and physiological properties of a human. Through these perceptions, one may feel anxiety—fear of being in the world, dread—dejection at meaninglessness of existence, and/or fear of death—regret because the build-up to death consisted of nothing. Roquentin of Sartre’s Nausea portrays this stage as he is horrified at his own existence and comes to describe the anxiety and dread with which he records his feelings in his diary as “nausea.”
The second stage involves purpose. One must feel the need to develop a purpose to combat any anxiety, dread, and the fear of death elicited by the aridity of one’s existence. Such is portrayed in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground where the Underground Man realizes that he must counter the dread he feels from an existence bombarded by the customs of society. One must then create a purpose, drawing from personal experiences that originated from external circumstances and making convictions about how to integrate those experiences. The Underground Man draws from his dreadful experiences and resorts to isolation from the cause of his dread by physically alienating himself from society.
The last stage is devoting one’s life to one’s purpose. Just as one had to exercise free will of thought in the first two stages, one must exercise free will of action in this last stage by making one’s own decisions and choices oriented to achieve one’s purpose and then acting on them. By utilizing freedom in this way, one can personally direct all aspects of one’s life. This resistance against passive acceptance of solely external, determinative forces allows one to ascribe meaning to life, thus creating one’s essence. Stephen Daedalus of Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man portrays this last stage as he makes choices and decisions that will allow him to become a priest of art.
By embracing the three stages of the meaning of life, like Camus’s Sisyphus one is capable of transcending mere existence and living fully. As Sartre said, “At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.” At first, one perceives the nothingness of one’s existence, and only through developing and striving toward a purpose out of his own freedom of thought and action will one be able to carve out an essence from one’s existence.
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