I sat with two girlfriends chatting in a hotel lobby bar and as the conversation tends to, we soon began talking about life and the trials we each have faced. My friend, who is a cancer survivor and whose mother is also a cancer survivor, mentioned that she sees being a survivor as an event, similar to a wedding date or a graduation. We each pondered how some people who overcome difficulties become completely identified with their difficulty and adopt that as their new identity while others don’t. We wondered why there are those who can bounce back from a tragedy while others never do. We discussed how people often interpret life through the lens of “everything happens for a reason.” I flippantly commented, “nothing happens for a reason,” and while we all laughed, we also realized the veracity of that statement.
We humans are meaning-making machines. We want, even need to see meaning in our lives. We look for patterns, for answers, for signs from the divine, to psychics, tarot cards, astrology, and psychology to give us the answers we desire. When my friend was diagnosed with cancer, another friend of hers asked “don’t you ever just wonder why me” to which my friend replied, “why not me.” Here, she intuitively understood what Yalom was getting to when he said “everything that is could well have been otherwise” and as such, we are responsible for creating our own meaning.
The next question we are faced with is how to make meaning in an inherently meaningless universe. When my friend surrendered the need to ask “why me” and accept the senselessness of the situation, she was able to separate her identity from her diagnosis and create a life distinct from “survivor.” Having the courage to face her diagnosis without needing to “find a reason” for why it happened to her was the very thing that set her free.
It is a weighty thing to accept that this life we each live really has no grand meaning. We are not pawns on a cosmic chessboard, and we are not here to discover meaning. We are the script writers of our own existence, and we are solely responsible for the life we create, the meanings we attribute to our lives, and the ways we interpret our existence. It is not at all a hopeless thing to surrender to meaninglessness; it can be one of the most empowering ways of being. When I accept that I am fully responsible for the creation of my life’s meaning, I can choose how to lead my life. I can see tragedy as the sum total of who I am, or I can see it as a stroke on the canvas of my life. I can choose to see the trash on the freeway or the flowers dancing softly in the wind.
Nothing happens for a reason….there are some things that defy reason and are senseless. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck. Sometimes, we create a meaning that gives us a great sense of peace and hope, but it is still one’s own meaning that is attributed to the world. Therein lies one of our greatest freedoms and our greatest responsibilities.
What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. — Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959/1984), p. 12
— Lisa Vallejos