The following essay is excerpted from The Forgotten Art of Love by Armin A. Zadeh, MD, PhD, published by New World Library.
Distinguished from the animal world by the capacity of reason, humans have always thought about our place in the universe and beyond. Do we belong to nature, or are we above it? Are we a part of a greater plan or just a product of chance? What does existence really mean? Is there a meaning at all? While modern science has given us many answers about our origin, it has not brought us much closer to understanding our metaphysical being. We have made great strides in understanding our biology, but we still struggle to grasp our reason for existing.
Philosophers, religious scholars, and creative artists have wrestled with this question throughout human history. Although their conclusions vary widely, one element is remarkably consistent: the belief that human suffering is relieved by achieving a state of selflessness, sometimes referred to as a “liberation of the soul.” We achieve peace by defeating our instinct for egotism.
Again, one explanation for this phenomenon may lie in evolutionary biology and psychology. Since an impulse for maintaining the well-being of the species ranks higher than one directed at aiding only the individual, the reinforcing feedback from the former will be greater and more sustained. Thus, all attempts to grasp the purpose of our existence — including the construction of elaborate intellectual or spiritual schemes — are challenged by the somewhat bleak-sounding argument that we are here merely to perpetuate our species.
Even if this is the case, if we adhere to our biological programming by practicing benevolence toward others, we will live in harmony with our bodies and perceive contentment. Conversely, self-serving actions — beyond caring for our own well-being — will bring us conflict and suffering. Even if we cannot explain the purpose of life itself, we may as well spend our given time closely aligned to the intrinsic intention of human nature.
Ultimately, we all have to determine for ourselves the meaning of life. For many, love has been the answer, and it has brought them happiness and contentment. Yet the truly loving person does not love pragmatically, with the aim of gaining happiness, but rather as a consequence of having matured into a complete person — or, in the words of the Buddha, “having awoken.”
When we learn to contain impulses like greed and selfishness, love can develop freely, and we can experience the contentment and happiness that come from giving love. Parents know the overwhelming feeling of joy that comes from just looking at our children. They may cause us lots of work, sorrow, and hardship, but these are easily outweighed by the happiness we feel when we see the glee in our children’s eyes and hear their laughter. Giving happiness to others is a great gift, and no amount of wealth or fame can match its satisfaction.
Anyone can find purpose and meaning in life. Our success largely depends on how much effort and focus we are willing to expend. Love is not free — in the sense that it may require as much dedication and focus as any other great aim in life. The good news is that we can have it if we really want it and are willing to value it over other goals.
Identifying a purpose in life is closely linked to attaining happiness and fulfillment. Often, it is life events that prompt us to reflect on our purpose. In my case, it was the birth of my son Luca — or, strictly speaking, the time just before his birth. When my wife, Denise, was pregnant with Luca, we received notice that some of the routine prenatal tests showed results outside the normal range. Subsequent testing raised the possibility that Luca had trisomy-21, or Down syndrome. To have certainty and to be able to prepare for this possibility, we decided to have an amniocentesis. To discuss the results, we were invited for an appointment with the genetic counselor.
Coming to the appointment directly from work, I was a little late, and Denise and the counselor were talking when I entered the room. I will never forget the expressions on their faces when they looked at me, confirming the diagnosis. The counselor left the room to give Denise and me a minute to process the information. We hugged and were silent for a while. In hindsight and with shame, I remember a sensation of sadness and loss. My thoughts circled around not being able to share existential thoughts with my son, concepts that likely would be lost on him because of the intellectual disability associated with Down syndrome. I was afraid I would never have an intellectual connection to him.
It took me a while to realize that I was being selfish to worry about my unfulfilled expectations instead of asking what the diagnosis would mean for his life. Luca prompted me to think what life is all about. Is high intellectual capacity a prerequisite for a good life? Certainly not.
While there may not be a single criterion for the value of a life, it was important to me to know that Luca had the potential for experiencing happiness. Since his diagnosis was not associated with any impairment to receiving and giving love, and thus being able to live a happy life, my initial response of sadness was unjustified.
Because Denise arrived at the same conclusions way before I did, we were ready to welcome Luca into our lives with open arms. Since then, Luca has continued to teach us lessons of love. His sense for closeness among family and friends, his keen attention to the well-being of everybody around him, his astounding selflessness, and his amazing capacity for joy inspire us every day. My wife’s description of Luca “oozing” love captures it best. Luca may never win a Nobel Prize, but he exemplifies to us on a daily basis the happiness of life.
Trying to grasp the meaning of life is an overwhelming task, one that may trigger anxiety or denial. Central to such anxiety is facing our mortality, which is unbearable to many. Other than denial, there are many ways to deal with the fact of our mortality. Most of them entail a belief that we live on in one form or another. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that the soul moves on to a better world after death. Hinduism and Buddhism embrace the idea of reincarnation.
With the fading of religion, particularly in Western societies, and the simultaneous growth in influence of science and technology, people seek other ways to cope with finding meaning in life. It may be harder and more frightening, though, to seek the answers without the support of a spiritual community or organization. The struggle with finding life’s meaning may be linked to the rising suicide rates among middle-aged adults in recent years. Finding the answers for ourselves requires confidence to follow our own path.
Some people find reassurance about mortality in a quest for fame. This is based on the idea that we live on after death through our achievements, such as books, movies, music, and athletic achievements.
Probably the most common way to find meaning and to cope with our mortality is by having children. The strong bond we feel with our children is at least partly rooted in the idea that we live on in them, through their genes and their memories. As our children grow, we observe part of ourselves repeating the cycle of life, and we see it enacted again in our grandchildren. We recognize physical features and character traits in our children that resemble ours — or even our parents’. Witnessing the cycle of life is a comfort when we face our own individual mortality.
Love is a form of energy. A kind word or a thoughtful gesture — even exchanged with a stranger in a brief encounter — makes us feel warm and alive inside, ready to do something loving ourselves. When somebody dies, we still feel their love transmitting energy to us and steering us along the right path. When we die, our love and generosity will live on through the people we have known and loved. We can be comforted by the knowledge that we have been part of a positive force in this world.
Love thus offers a direct remedy for our fear of dying. The highest form of love is the achievement of selflessness and perfect union with the world around us. When we attain this state, our individual existence ceases to matter, as we perceive ourselves as part of the eternal stream of life. Another view of the same phenomenon is that a total focus on love — which is directed at others — eliminates any concerns for ourselves, including the fear of death.
Identifying our individual purpose is largely under our own control. In Western societies, success and purpose are commonly defined in terms of monetary wealth, power, and fame. Becoming a CEO of a large company, a movie star, or an elite athlete may bring great personal satisfaction, but unless ambition is paired with an altruistic attitude, it is unlikely to bring lasting contentment.
One of the best-regarded movies of all time, Citizen Kane, tells the rise and fall of an American tycoon who makes a fortune in the newspaper business but in the end dies a lonely and broken man who has never recovered from the lack of love in his childhood. On his deathbed, Kane’s last word is “Rosebud,” recalling the sled — bearing the image of a rosebud — with which he was happily playing when his newly wealthy parents told him they were sending him away to be properly educated. The sled stands for the comfort, love, and innocence of which he was deprived by his parents’ ambitions for his career. Even the ruthless and successful Kane learns in the end that wealth means little if we don’t experience love.
In searching for meaning, we may want to imagine ourselves at the end of life. What might we do that would make us think at the end, “This was a life worth living”? If we have made a positive difference in people’s lives, if our families and friends have felt our love and care, their lives have been enriched and made happier because of us. We may die happily knowing that our love is leaving the world a little better than when we entered it.
A friend of mine used to work in a lung cancer unit at a hospital. She met many patients who had only weeks to live. When reflecting on their lives, almost all patients expressed regret at not spending more time with their loved ones. If there was one thing they would have done differently, it was to have spent less time working and more time with family and friends. It is always tragic when the recognition of the right choice comes too late. Fortunately, for most of us there is time to reconsider our priorities.