The Subjective Meaningful Life “What do we want when we want a meaningful life? What is it that makes some lives meaningful, others less so? ” (pg. 1). These are questions we all ask ourselves at some point or another during our lives. We spend the majority of our lives aspiring to achieve a meaningful life, and at the same time we spend most of our lives questioning and wondering what exactly a meaningful life is. “What is it that makes some lives meaningful, others less so? (pg. 1) is also one of the first questions asked in “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters”. In Susan Wolf’s excerpt, “The Meanings of Lives”, the author attempts to define what a “meaningful life” is. The reason specifically chose to use the word attempt is because I think the definition of a meaningful life is subjective. It differs from one person to another, and of course it would since the definition mostly applies to them and they are mostly affected by it.
There are certain aspects of Susan Wolf’s analysis of how to define a ‘meaningful life’ that I agree with and think are valid, nevertheless I will propose some examples that challenge her view, and support my counter-argument that the definition of a meaningful life is completely subjective. To determine what is it to live a meaningful life, Wolf finds it might be easier “to make progress by focusing on what we want to avoid. ” (1). I agree with this decision, and think working backwards is a great way to tackle a difficult question.
Where Wolf starts to lose me, is when she begins to offer some paradigms of meaningless lives. Using the lives of “the Blob, the Useless, and the Bankrupt” as examples, Wolf concludes that a meaningful life is one that is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value. The first example is The life of the Blob; A person whose life is lived in hazy passivity, a life lived at a not unpleasant level of consciousness, but unconnected to anyone or anything, going nowhere, achieving nothing.
The second example being the life of the Useless; A life full of acti or useless activity. Lives whose dominant activities seem pointless, useless, or empty. And finally, The life of the Bankrupt; Someone who is engaged, even dedicated, to a project that is ultimately revealed as bankrupt, not because the person’s values are shallow or misguided, but because the project fails. At a first glance, Wolf seems to be going on the right track and making valid points. However, as she gets more specific and gives case examples, she starts to lose me. Upon further exploration of her arguments, you may realize that her points are not completely valid, and that you should take a deeper look at them.
As she gives these characters more and more details, and you begin to agree more and more with her point, you might realize that the person you are agreeing with could sometimes be yourself, from another person’s view. For example, she states that in the case of the Blob, “the idea of a meaningless life is most clearly and effectively embodied in the image of a person who spends day after day, or night after night, in front of a television set, drinking beer and watching situation comedies”. Most of us probably agree with this as soon as we read it.
We imagine a large slob being a couch potato all day and grimace with disgust as we feel a sense of pride that we ourselves are not that way. But who are we to judge someone for living a sedentary life. We have no idea what they went through to get where they are today. We don’t know their reasoning, and have no clue whether this lifestyle might actually have been their ideal idea of a meaningful life. I could flip Wolf’s statement and ask what if someone’s goal is to not be actively engaged. What if their purpose is to meditate and find perfect zen. To do absolutely nothing.
But wolf doesn’t take that into consideration. She assumes theses cases she has sketched out “capture our images of meaninglessness more or less accurately. [and] provide clues to what a positive case of a meaningful life must contain” (pg. 2). But they don’t, these cases capture our images of a meaningless life. Wolf states “in contrast to the Blob’s passivity, a person who lives a meaningful life must be actively engaged” (pg. 2). while this is simply not true. If you think you need to be “actively engaged” to live a meaningful life that is simply your opinion.
You chose to make being actively engaged a criteria of a meaningful life and you can’t force that on anyone else. Just like someone might make meditation and being able to think of nothing a criteria of living a meaningful life. They might not fit the criteria of living a meaningful life by your definition, but that’s what’s so great about it. You find what works for you and let it work for you. A less fortunate person who has nothing might look at my life and think I’m an over consuming, North American, sheep who is just going through the notions of life.
I go to school to get a job, I get a job to buy a house and a car, I buy a car to get to work, and house to live in when I’m away from work. I then go to work to pay for said car and home. Then at the end, I produce a child to continue the cycle. Doesn’t that life seem quite meaningless as well not? Unfortunately, that is my life and your life. Another statement I have an issue with is when wolf says “as the Useless cases teach us, it will not do to be engaged in just anything, for any reason or with any goal – one must be engaged in a project or projects that have some positive value” (pg. ).
She classifies cases of people who defy this and puts them under the heading. Who are we to judge and determine what constitutes as “projects that have some positive value” (pg. 2). Some of the examples Wolf uses are “an idle rich person who’s fighting off boredom, moving from one amusement to another. Or [the] pig farmer who buys more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs to buy more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs” (pg. 2). The definition and standards of the word useless is extremely subjective.
What if the “idle rich person’s” goal in life is to never be bored, or to always be entertained What if the pig farmer’s goal is to have as many pigs as he possibly can. Maybe when he was younger he watched his parents struggle to maintain their sheep farm, or he witnessed sheep’s starve. Perhaps he vowed to prevent as many sheep as he can from ever going hungry. Would you consider that a meaningless life? I most certainly would not. There is tons of reasoning behind what people do and we rarely get the opportunity to ever learn what it is.
They don’t owe us an explanation. However I think we do owe it to them to think about that before we judge. Keep reminding yourself that everyone has a story, everyone is fighting their own battles, and everyone has their reasons. We may not know them, we may not understand them, but we should acknowledge that there is something unknown to us behind people’s actions. As Wolf gets to her last point that it’s “necessary that one’s activities be at least to some degree successful” (pg. 3), even she begins to point out how this point is beginning to fail.
She states “though it may not be easy to determine what counts as the right kind or degree of success” (pg. 3). Determining what counts as success and the different degrees of success is a subject Wolf could write a whole new book on. Towards the end this excerpt Wolf begins to make some statements I can finally agree with. She brings up questions that I was asking myself as I read this excerpt, such as “why [should one] care about living a meaningful life” (pg. 3) and “why [should one] care that one’s life be actively and somewhat successfully engaged in projects of positive value” (pg. 3).
Her method of including other people as examples to support something that is so personal and subjective doesn’t seem like such a good idea once she begins to develop it. In the end, I genuinely appreciate Wolf’s efforts to help us define and achieve a meaningful life. Although, I disagree with the majority of her points, this excerpt brought myself a few steps closer to hopefully figuring out what a meaningful life means to me one day. I now know for a fact that it’s not about judging people, and comparing myself to others. When it comes to making my life meaningful I should just focus on me, myself and I.
I advise other people to take this approach as well. As Wolf states toward the end of this excerpt, “as long as you are engaged by your activities, and they make you happy, why should one care that one’s activities be objectively worthwhile? ” (pg. 3). In the end no matter how you decide to define a meaningful life, you’re the one who’s going to be living it. So when you’re trying to figure out how to make your life meaningful, remember to do what you want and keep in mind what the great Canadian actor turned rapper, Drake, once said, you only live once.