What is the meaning of an individual’s life?

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As we grow older, we are facing increased “endings” and few “beginnings” in the lives of family and friends. As family and friends age, we seem to be in the midst of too many deaths, too much fragility, too much debilitating poor health and aloneness.

All this has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 plague. Its overwhelming presence in our lives has heightened uncertainties and anxieties, with little hope of what we thought of as “normal.”

In other times, old age might not seem so drastic but more a continuation of our daily lives, but the lockdowns have meant loss of contacts, isolation, no physical demonstration of affection and no gatherings of friends and families.

There is nothing quite like these days to focus the mind on death and dying, and on the question of “what is this all about?

I greatly admire Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a major figure in psychology, who said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by the lack of meaning and purpose.”

If the psychologist Abraham Maslow is correct, humans yearn for the fulfilment of five basic needs and that without these being achieved, then we are lost. We do not have to agree with him about a hierarchy of needs, but his list is true. Our needs are for basic survival — physiological; safety; belongingness and love; esteem; and self-actualization.

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Another psychologist, Erik Erikson, thinks there is no meaning to life without a sense of connectedness, self-worth and respect.

This is true for all ages, from childhood to old age, but at this time of COVID, we have not been able to address most of our needs.

How can we develop a sense of connectedness, self-worth, love or respect in these times, when schools are closed, children lack relationships with others and when old people and women are isolated in their homes or even rooms? One sad example is the increase in domestic violence against women because of isolation and lack of contacts.

For some of us, this earthly life is all there is. These individuals have to make sense of it with no belief in a hereafter. But for those of us who have faith, this life is not the complete picture. There is something before and something that will follow, and so this life is viewed as a continuation of our existence.

As a Muslim, I seek answers within this religious context and try to make sense of my temporal and spiritual life. As a Muslim, I also believe that other faiths can be pathways to reach God. This is stated in the Qur’an.

I like the Islamic teaching of Sufism that this life is part of the journey of the soul, which became separated from God and yearns for a return to the source of all life. The duration of this life is a bridge. We do not know what was prior to stepping on the bridge, but we know that we are travelling toward the source of divine light at the other end.

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There are several well-known Sufi saints, such as Rumi, a 13 CE scholar and mystic, and the 8th CE saint, Rabia of Basra. They practised their faith in God by focusing only on loving God without fear of punishment or in search of rewards.

To return to the practical issue of how do we deal with, or make sense of, what is happening due to the plague of COVID?

Perhaps we can learn from the message of the Buddha as well as our own religious teachings.

For example, Buddha taught that pain or “dukh” is pervasive in our lives and we fool ourselves by pretending that life is joyful. Our aim should be to overcome this pain and to escape from the snares of this life.

This Buddhist perspective would explain the suffering caused by COVID, even though some of us keep hoping for some joy and pleasure!

I grapple with how to respond to the question asked by Viktor Frankl when he says, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”

It is very difficult to do, that is, to be prepared to have an answer to life’s question about “meaning.”

I think what we need to do is to accept loss and endings as the natural part of our lives. There is joy and pleasure and beauty around us, and we should search for joy, no matter how transient these may be. I think we must distil from our experiences what is positive and appreciate and be grateful for the good that is happening in our lives.

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