Granted, I think that even the most die-hard nihilists render meaning all the time—they can’t help it. But there’s a difference between functional meaning and intentional meaning, in the same way that there’s a difference between swimming to avoid drowning and swimming to complete laps across a pool.
For the second half of the story, I think Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death still answers best the question of why we are meaning rendering creatures, in terms of both necessity and choice.
Becker argues that humans live between two worlds: the physical and the symbolic. Our physical existence is both fragile and finite—subject to the ebb and flow of randomness, and ultimately ending, no matter what else happens to us along the way.
Our symbolic selves, on the other hand, are busy creating meaning to transcend the fragile and finite nature of our physical selves, and finally, Becker argues, to address the issue of mortality. And so we engage in “immortality projects” that will outlive us. We do this at the neurobiological level as a defense mechanism, but more importantly (in our day to day lives) at the symbolic level to create meaning that fills our existence.
Becker’s take on this is broad; he sees the progression of human history—social, technological, artistic, economic and so forth—as an intricate symbolic system brimming with immortality projects. The key element in all of this for Becker is heroism. Humans engage in the heroic—that which extends us beyond the limits of our physical selves—to become part of something bigger than we are, something with longevity and–wait for it–meaning.
Quoting from The Denial of Death:
The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.
What fuels heroism is imagination. We had to imagine space travel before people would commit their lives to accomplishing it. We had to imagine the greatness of liberal democracy before people committed themselves to fighting for it. Quoting again from The Denial of Death:
Man will lay down his life for his country, his society, his family. He will choose to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades; he is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful.
For my purposes in this post, I want to pare Becker down a bit. While respecting the broader examples he provides, I think that all of us engage in immortality projects of different sorts, large and small.
Take writers, for example. Particularly in the digital age, the words we put out there will likely outlive us, and for those of us who write books, there’s no question that copies (print and/or digital) will be around much longer than we are. If we knew that everything we wrote would expire in a year, I doubt we’d be as invested.
Teachers impart knowledge bigger than they are, and that will outlive them and their students as it continues to move through generations. Doctors and nurses treat patients not only to help individuals, but because ‘health’ itself is bigger than they are, and contributing to its betterment is a project that transcends their jobs. People have children, in part, because caring for and raising new lives has profound meaning far greater than the biological act.
You can come up with thousands of examples like these.
Regardless of who you are or what you do, the question is what motivates your projects? This question troubled Becker, because he believed that we are running short on that which captures the imagination to move people toward projects bigger than they are.
Personally, I’m not so troubled, because I think those of us inclined to pursue projects of greater value and duration never cease finding opportunities to do so. They’re all around us.
Which is just another way of saying that meaning is all around us. We’re drawn to it, we choose it, and sometimes it seems to choose us.