It all starts with a thought experiment involving our friend Caesar the ape. Yes, I am referring to the same Caesar from the “Planet of the Apes” movie, before he, so recklessly, became addicted to IQ steroids. A small, more fun twist to the story, I know.
When logotherapy pioneer, Dr. Victor Frankl (1905-1997) stepped into a group therapy session, he asked the attendees
“… whether an ape which was being used to develop a poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man […]”
Then, Dr. Frankl followed with another question
“And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world behind man’s world ; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”
Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
If I, as a man, fail to realize the meaning of my suffering in particular, and the meaning of my life in general, then it must be because I lack the cognitive keys to unlock these insights.
Granted, human awareness has its limitations. But if I strive to educate myself and constantly seek depth of understanding, I will eventually land on a crucial piece of information that would instigate a major perspective shift and bring about a new life purpose.
In more scientific terms, meaning is all about the connections and associations made between seemingly disparate pieces of information and data. The more knowledge I collect, the more meaning I can extract.
Meaning is the meta-data of life; it’s life explaining itself.
Even if, in my search for knowledge, I were to uncover an unpleasant truth, I should still be grateful, because only now am I able to make a conscious choice on how to tackle the situation; only now have I the wisdom to discern between the things that I must accept and those that I can change.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference
Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr
I define “actionable meaning” as newly acquired insight that can be acted on to achieve tangible results, thus increasing happiness.
Some very short examples to illustrate what I mean.
Having learned basic genetics, a doubtful young boy realizes that he could not have inherited his AB blood type from his parents, both of whom are blood type O. He must be adopted. Naturally, he will take action by seeking an explanation and looking for his biological parents. He is living a lie no more. Acting on this new insight is his first step to true happiness.
In the case of our friend Caesar, when he overdosed on IQ steroids, he became painfully aware of the unpleasant meaning of his suffering: the merciless exploitation of his species to cure human diseases. This newly discovered insight demanded action. He had to do something. He rebelled, surrounded himself with loyal followers and wreaked havoc in the kingdom of men. By acting on his insights, he ended the suffering of his fellow apes and increased the happiness and wellbeing of his species.
That’s it… for now!
- The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to make connections and extract meaning
- Some meaning will have an actionable element to it
- Acting on newly acquired meaning will increase my net happiness