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Our Fear of Meaning

In its first iteration last semester, Ethical Reasoning 38: “The Meaning of Life” drew 116 students and almost certainly more for shopping week. Not everyone enrolled hoping to discover the meaning of life, but I do believe the class size reflects the existential angst many college students struggle with. Although the widespread presence of anxiety comes at no surprise, what I did find surprising during my experience in the class is that although everyone seemed to believe that objective meaning doesn’t exist and that what makes a life meaningful is an entirely personal question, nobody felt comfortable answering it. Instead, students continually argued that no definition of a meaningful life is inherently more valid than another. I believe the appeal of this relativist framework and our hesitation to define even personal standards for life’s meaning stem from a fear of the responsibility that comes with defining a standard for life’s meaning. Only by overcoming this fear of responsibility can we put ourselves on paths towards more fulfilling lives.

We must recognize that even as relativism forces us to accept that no view of life’s meaning is inherently more legitimate than any other, relativism doesn’t preclude us from exploring our own personal views. For example, when it comes to morality, although relativists might recognize that even murder isn’t objectively bad, relativists can be personally convinced that murder is bad. Nonetheless, when it comes to arguments about life’s meaning, we find ourselves incapable of defining standards of life’s meaning that are personally convincing. We instead repeat that no argument is inherently truer than any other.

Obviously life’s meaning is a difficult question, but I believe a deeper-seated fear of responsibility prevents us from even defining a personally convincing standard. If we accept a standard for life’s meaning, we would be forced to look inward and question how our own lives compare to that standard—a terrifying prospect. During our introspection, we might conclude that we could be living more meaningful lives. This conclusion would mean accepting both the responsibility to live a more meaningful life and the possibility that we might fail to do so. Once we accept that our lives should be lived in a certain way, the stakes become frighteningly high. Thus, rather than accepting meaning and the responsibility that comes with it, we repeatedly argue that meaning is an entirely personal question, but don’t answer it.

I believe this fear of responsibility and failure is particularly present in us, Harvard students, because once we define life’s meaning either objectively or subjectively, we would be forced to recognize that we have been blessed (or cursed) with the talent and the opportunity to pursue the very life that we have defined as meaningful. Once we accept that we can live meaningful lives, we have only our lack of effort to blame for not doing so.

By recognizing our true insecurities, we can put ourselves on the right path. Once we overcome this fear of responsibility and failure, and are instead honest with ourselves about what we believe makes a life meaningful, we can take advantage of our talents and the unique opportunities this university provides us with to pursue lives we find fulfilling. Overcoming our insecurities and defining what we believe to be life’s meaning is certainly a difficult process that takes time. As such, we must begin this process now, with our lives ahead of us. If we delay, the life we ultimately find meaningful and fulfilling may be out of reach, or worse, have passed us by.

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Daniel Silberwasser '16, a statistics concentrator, lives in Kirkland House.

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