Friday, March 11, 2005

The Regular Life and the Quest for Meaning

The Regular Life and the Quest for Meaning

Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino): So you never wanted a regular type life?
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro): What the fuck is that? Barbeques and ballgames?

- Heat, directed by Michael Mann

To some people, the so-called "regular life" is pure bliss and happiness: a stable and well-paying job, a suburban home filled with the boisterous activities of kids growing up. To others, it is a depressing middleclass nightmare.

In the movie Heat, Al Pacino played a burnt out, twice divorced cop who is totally consumed by his quest to hunt down a big-time robber on the run played by Robert De Niro. In one memorable scene at a cafe, the cop and the robber sat down to have a rather civil conversation together over a cup of coffee. And they both realized how similar they are to each other--only that they are on different sides of the law. "I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me", said De Niro's character.

They certainly do not have the "regular life". It is as if they are cursed to go through a life which they know will not bring them the regular type of happiness but still they cannot escape from "doing what they do". Both are hunters driven by the mysterious thrill of the hunt.

Some of us are like that too. We know we are born to do something with our lives. We feel a primeval urge inside that drives us to pursue things that we feel we are destined to do. It probably won't make us happy in the conventional sense but it certainly would give our lives a whole lot of meaning.

What is this "meaning" that is so important to us? Why would we rather have "meaning" than a "regular life"? Isn't a regular life meaningful in its own way too?

I might not be inclined myself to lead a regular family life, but yet I do not think people who choose to do so lead a life any less meaningful. We all define and find our own meaning in life. And it is the quest for meaning that drives us on.

In Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, he recounted how there were some prisoners who actually died not because they were wounded or ill but simply because they couldn't find any reason to continue living in the horrible conditions of the concentration camp anymore. One day, they just "decided" to die.

A family man can certainly find meaning in building a happy and harmonious home. It is a task that is as noble and challenging as any other more "romantic" quests: The householder is no lesser than the painter who strives to produce a masterpiece work or a scientist who seeks to formulate a breakthrough theory that would be the crowning achievement of his life.

Sometimes we might not even know what kind of meaning we are looking for because the quest for meaning is a journey rather than a destination. All we know is that this journey would consume our entire lives.

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