I have always imagined that well-being, bright prospects, good health and a clear purpose in life tend not to inspire questions about the meaning of life very often.
What I have noticed, however, is that it is suffering, tragedy, and the absurdity of unexpected events which tend to turn into a catalyst for the rise of such questions that probe into the meaning of human existence.
Job, the biblical character, begins to be haunted by dark thoughts and excruciating questions after a perfect storm shakes his existing balance. The primary question that requires an answer in the midst of tragedies is this: Is there an unconditional meaning in the darkest circumstances of life? Can we find meaning in suffering, in the midst of disasters and losses? This odyssey of discovering an indestructible sense of purpose is repeated in the life of every man struck by misfortune.
This year marks 35 years since my physical integrity was affected by an improperly treated infectious disease. This made my life severely threatened in a single week. It was a clear August night, when I looked up at the sky and asked for the first time: why me, why me? A night in which, because of the excruciating pain, I spent most of the time under the metal hospital bed, on the cold tiles, or looking at the myriad of stars in the sky and trying to find an explanation for the suffering I was going through.
Childhood, as I had known it until then, ended that night. A new stage began, one marked by an agonizing search for answers to questions caused by the tragedy that had struck once again so suddenly.
Sooner or later, life requires each of us to have a personal answer to the great question: Why do you exist? Even if we manage to solve the problem of the meaning of life, by finding a philosophical or theological solution to it, daily challenges, our intellectual and spiritual evolution, and the changes we witness in society force us to negotiate with ourselves and constantly update the meaning of and purpose for our existence. Despair and hopelessness are not necessarily unknown to the person who has a vision of their purpose in life. Accepting responsibility for life is a challenge we must face on a daily basis. To use the gifts and blessings we received, to cultivate love and compassion, to have a dignified attitude in the face of suffering means to truly find the meaning of life and not just an abstract, general meaning that does not engage you in any way.
We have two options in the face of the tragedies of life: nihilism, with the thesis that nothing in life makes sense, and therefore death is an alternative to consider, or embracing the belief that there is a meaning that is higher than ourselves in life, namely, our transformation into loving and altruistic beings with a unique mission in life. The existential void, which so many experience, is a consequence of adopting a fatalistic view of life. But the ephemerality of life and its tragic character should not lead anyone to despair. Even if death is a reality that we will all face, we can find meaning in what we leave behind, in what we have done for others—things that will continue to exist even after we are gone.
The freedom to choose how to react no matter how big and lasting the losses are is what defines us as human beings. Nothing we can experience in life can nullify our ability to self-determine or take away our freedom to resist the whims of fate. What we make of our suffering is our responsibility and can eventually become the very meaning of our lives.
The miracle of life
Even in the most discouraging circumstances we may find ourselves in, the miracle of life is always present. A smile, a flower, a sunrise, a good deed are just as many reasons why we should let gratitude flood our souls. Surprisingly, we have found that gratitude to God, the One who holds the destiny of every being in His hand, can free us from the bitterness and regret that a painful past could have caused us. This way, life can flourish again, bringing to light potentialities that we believed to be buried forever under the mound of a painful and unjust past.