How many times have you wandered on the psychological path to ascertain the cryptic meaning of ‘who am I’? As you are reading this article, hence, chances are more than once. Well, in the socio-academic world that we live in today, the meta-analysis on this subject are positively, and consistently, predisposed towards us. Psychologists are further inclined to discover the true meaning of life than ever before in history.


In the old Grandpa’s time, the charade of ‘who am I’ hadn’t stemmed yet. People were still quite perplexed by thinking of ways to endure extreme heat without any fans or air conditioners, cooking efficiently on chulhas, and avoiding domestic snags for mere five rupees.1)I am referring 1950s and there are numerous recorded cases of divorce where the dispute was for less than 5 INR or 0.070 USD

Amid the lavish lifestyles facilitated by the growth in the global economy and the fact that as a society we are expansively girded by astonishing scientific breakthroughs, our communal problems have evolved to a large extent. Our generation possesses better communication systems than any other ancient civilization. Our defense arrangements, food systems, and medical facilities have significantly improved compared to any other time in history. We can have access to any relevant information within seconds. And we know more about our universe than ever before.

Back in the 2nd century, Ptolemy’s geocentric model, which assumed Earth as the center of the universe and that each planet moved by a system of two spheres, was not only a major communal belief but the only existing astronomical information.

Then around the 15th century, the Scientific Revolution began alongside the works of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei and they eradicated numerous false beliefs prevalent in society.

The baton was then passed over to arguably the most influential physicist of the modern world – Isaac Newton (and his legendary apple). Newton technically fashioned the design of modern-day science through Principia, and two of his other publications, thereby marking the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment.

Sir Issac Newton and his apple - Aashish Vats

Since then, numerous scientists, scholars, and philosophers such as Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, William James, and more recently, Stephen Hawking, have made enormous contributions to science and exploration. Their discoveries have devised an eternal influence on human minds.2)For further input on the influence of science, see – Mark Manson (2018). Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. Pg. 116-122

And by the virtue of this influence, there is a growing proclivity in affluent societies3)The growing trend of discovering ourselves and the meaning of our life is observed significantly more in rich and developed countries/societies than developing or poor countries/societies. See – Oishi, Shigehiro & Diener, Ed (2013). Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations. Psychological science. 25. 10.1177/0956797613507286. for deciphering the scientific meaning of life itself.

In clinically scientific terms, a human is a materially composed individual with the ability to feel, think, perceive, infer, interpret, observe, act, and value things. A human body is a dynamic creation, with psychological and moral capabilities, which changes and grows while interacting using the vast network of the brain.

In an age where machine learning and artificial intelligence are marketed as the new dawn in technology and are designed to learn from humans itself, the abiding quandary of ‘who am I’ is like an insult to the borderline epidemic of science.

And here is a thing about people with a scientific mindset: they worship facts and evidence. However, about simplifying the meaning of life and its purpose, there is only so much that science and subjective thinking can apprise.

Besides, facts and evidence have limited viability for accurately ascertaining an individual’s identity4)See – Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, as the system of observing such facts and evidence are always contentious on the ground of cognitive bias.5)There are different types of cognitive biases that influence our everyday choices. See – Christopher Dwyer (2018). 12 Common Biases that affect how we make everyday decisions. Psychology Today.

Nevertheless, even if science somehow apprehends a way to defeat cognitive biases, yet, its conclusions about the meaning and purpose of life would be strenuous to verify on the entire human race, let alone on those who are dead. And a fact that deciphers a perplexing query, as such the true meaning of life, must be universally valid, in all regions, under all situations, at every point in time.

Philosopher Karl Popper, in 1959, argued that no fact, theory, principle, or experiment can ever be proven. He highlighted that all theories and principles are based upon some degree of a faith-based assumption. An assumption that the outcomes of experiments would always be similar to original discoveries.6)See – Karl Popper (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

One of the best illustrations that I find on Karl’s arguments is about the rising of the sun. According to science, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, since forever, and no one has ever had a contrary experience. However, this doesn’t prove that the sun will continue to rise in the east forever. All it does is tell us the overwhelming probability of the sun rising in the east.

Therefore, though science provides us with the most sustainable form of hope for growth and a better life, ascertaining universal human identity and a meaningful purpose of life, using a scientific mindset, is immanently delusional.

Practices of Spirituality

On the other hand, another major borderline epidemic that has deep roots in history and has been abiding ever since is spirituality. Spiritual practices traditionally outlined a religious process of re-formation aimed to recover the original shape of a man. As exemplified by numerous founders and sacred texts of the religions of the world, such practices were oriented at the image of God.

In spiritual terms, a human body is only a cluster of nature’s five elements. And after death, the body is merged back into nature itself. According to many religious beliefs, the soul, a holy spirit of God, is the true essence for every being in this universe.

Who am I Spirituality - Aashish Vats

Thousands of years ago, before the birth of any spiritual religion, humanity was pretty fucked up. There were wars, rapes, and mass crusades. People used to kill each other for a piece of bread. Slaves were bought and sold. And people born in poverty almost certainly died in poverty. There was no growth and no hope of life getting any better.

You and me, we think we have life problems, but imagine living in such a time. Scary, huh?

Back then, a belief in the supernatural deity was the only thing that transpired hope, that restrained people from killing oneself. Because being alive sucked, people constructed hope in the afterlife. They constructed the stories of heaven and hell, of Gods and devils.

As there were no preset of rules to approach one’s life, they also invented stories about what God wants and the things we should and should not do. Today, we recognize those rules as rituals.

The funny thing about rituals: people change them all the time. Some of them, those which really sucked, are even abolished. For instance, human sacrifice is something that was done in almost every ancient civilization, to feel salvation or to impress an angry God or too. However, with time, people realized that it sucks, and therefore, abolished it.

Many religious sentiments are preached in our world. Each of them manifests a separate idea about life, the responsibilities of a man, and grants us a system that connects daily experiences with a coherent whole. Religions proclaim a universal structure to one’s life and play a critical role in constructing meaning out of extreme hardship.

However, here is an undeniable fact. Every religion is fundamentally only a sentiment once zeroed to reason. A story that we tell ourselves over and over again to feel salvation. A narrative that people invent to create a sense of something greater than themselves.

Indeed, religious stories can never be proven or disproven. And because we need such stories, every religious fanatic or a self-proclaimed spiritual guru or a person indulged in the business of spirituality7)By selling concert tickets for Yoga Camps, Meditational Workshops, and other false ideas and beliefs., and all dignified visionaries are pre-occupied with the belief of a greater meaning to one’s life, a greater purpose, the will of God, and shit like that.

I don’t know how to put this gallantly, but here is the truth: we all are completely insignificant creatures. Individually, we are a very tiny particle of an atom with several billion atoms living on a very small dust particle somewhere in a desert. And nobody really knows how big the desert is really.

Not only we don’t serve any great purpose, but there is no great purpose. So, relax. Here, have some MacFries and Diet Coke.

As humans, we construct these value-based stories to determine something as more important than everything else. To identify something as worth pursuing, something worth dying for, and something to justify our actions.

And please don’t get any wrong ideas. This is not an argument for nihilism. Infact, this is an argument to defy nihilism, in all its forms.

Now, before I decipher the meaning of life on earth for you, first we must solve the enigmatic query of ‘who am I.’

Who am I and Who are You?

For humans, the most subtle form of expression is emotions. Higher emotional intensity is what we fundamentally desire irrespective of our dreams or goals. Whether you want to build yourself an empire, become the best teacher, travel to mountains to meditate, take vacations, have amazing relationships, fight elections, smoke cigarettes, take LSD pills, drink alcohol, have sex, or worship God; your initial objective is higher emotional intensity.

Standard emotional Intensity Curve - Aashish Vats
Standard Emotional Intensity Curve

When we are born, our Intensity curve is something like this because our experiences are mostly constant. Our life is pretty much: eat, sleep, cry, and poop.

Then as we grow up, our intensity curve begins to fluctuate according to our experiences. We develop a rationale for basic knowledge, and through our lifetime, we further build upon that knowledge.

When you win a cricket match for your junior school team, your emotional intensity gets high. Then your father scolds you for playing cricket the whole day, and your emotional intensity gets low.

Then you become a school topper and the emotional intensity is back high again. However, once you are at the top, it all seems meaningless. Therefore, you try to keep the intensity high through other means. Maybe bunk school to visit a beautiful lake. But, ultimately, your teachers and parents figure it out and they punish you. Hence, you feel like an inferior piece of shit and emotional intensity is back low again.

High and Low Emotional Intensity Curve - Aashish Vats
High & Low Emotional Intensity Curve

You fall in love and the intensity skyrockets but eventually, it doesn’t work out too well, or maybe not well at all, and the intensity rock bottoms.

Well, you get the point. Right?

Life is essentially a struggle for intensity. And it is at the time of fluctuations in the intensity curve that we determine which experiences are more desirable and which are non-desirable. With the fluctuations in the intensity curve, we form a distinction between good and bad for ourselves. That’s how we create our life values, beliefs, and principles.

In other words, we spin a bunch of stories for and around ourselves. This network of our stories is our identity. And our identity is what we are.

Sidenote…

Oh! come on Aashish… you really didn’t write this 3000-word article to tell me that my identity is the network of my values and that is who I am. Did you?

To this, my sweet friend, I say: NO. I didn’t.

Now let’s talk about our identity crisis. Identity crisis, in other words, can be remarked as an absence of validation. And validation in itself is a mirage chased by every goddamn religion of the world.

Concept of Religion

Religion is not only a community with a belief in supernatural controlling power or a God but every community with a set of its own beliefs and values is a religion. Therefore, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam are not the only religions. Nihilism, Atheism, Communism, and Nationalism are also religions.

Individually, we all are a sort of an entity with our bunch of sweet values and beliefs. Therefore, every human being is a small religion.

The only difference between you and, say, Hinduism is that the values and beliefs of Hinduism have been accepted by people at large, which provides it a community. However, if you can write a great book or deliver a persuading radical speech (like Hitler gave to Germans to make-believe of their greatness) which induces people to accept your beliefs and values, you would have a community too.

Adolf Hitler was a religion way before he convinced anyone about anything. It was just that his values and beliefs were later accepted by people at large, and thus his religion became popular. Similarly, in India, Narendra Modi is a religion. But he is not a religion because he is the Prime Minister. He was a religion way before that. However, he was elected as Prime Minister because he managed to sell his values and beliefs to people at large. People accepted his values and beliefs because it gave them hope of a better future. (Talk of Adolf Hitler and Narendra Modi in the same paragraph: pun totally unintended)

Adolf Hitler selling his values and beliefs to Germans - Aashish Vats

Every individual, small organization or entity is drawn towards the set of values and beliefs which gives him the best hope of a better future.

Spiritual religions are popular because they provide hope for a better future. Science is the growing modern religion because it provides hope for a better future. Philosophers, radical activists, politicians, self-help writers, or the so-called motivational speakers are able to sell their values and beliefs to people by combining them with the hope of a better future.

There are three types of religions – Spiritual, Ideological, and Individual (Interpersonal).8)See – Mark Manson (2018). Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. Pg. 89-95

Needless to mention that all religions are nothing but stories. Stories constructed to generate a sense of meaning for ourselves. And these stories are not only questionable but subject to falsifiability. Therefore, every religion seeks validation. Because the absence of validation causes an identity crisis, the loss of hope.  

You and me, we are whatever we identify as ourselves. If we choose to identify ourselves with the mind, we are the mind. If we choose to identify ourselves with our emotions, we are the expression of our emotions. If we choose to identify ourselves as a soul, we are merely a soul.

Ultimately, it is the story or stories that we choose to accept for our hope of a better future which influences our values and beliefs. And it’s the network of our values and beliefs who we are.

It’s the absence of validation on our stories that prompts us to think it’s not enough. It makes us believe that there is something more to our life than what meets the eye.

The True Meaning in Life

If I have to give you the biggest secret of life, then it will be something like this: “The idea that life is inherently meaningless is a story constructed by the mind. And anything that we say or do to defy this narrative is also nothing but merely a story. However, life grants us inherent freedom, i.e. we can spin any story which helps us to construct a meaning for ourselves. Moreover, spinning a story for ourselves is not merely an option. It’s a prerequisite.”

Every person is born with this inherent freedom to spin whichever story he wants to construct hope. Every entity here is liberal when it comes to choosing their values and opinions.

Even the stupidest and most wicked people in history had this freedom to choose whatever meaning they anticipated for their life. Adolf Hitler had this freedom, and so did Joseph Stalin. Hitler had a self-made story revolving around Germany’s greatness and Stalin had his own bunch of widespread bullshit. While their chosen stories were the cause of nearly 85 million deaths9)The estimated number of casualties during World War II., they were never really deprived of the freedom to choose or alter their stories.

The terrorist groups and unhumanitarian organizations in effect today also have the freedom to spin the story of their choice. Every political party, social organization, big corporates have this freedom. And paradoxically, every mass movement and communal protest is a result of two or more stories in conflict with each other.

As I said, the idea that life is meaningless is also a story. Therefore, nihilism is also nothing but merely a story. Similarly, atheism, communalism, nationalism, are all stories.

Whether you believe that being successful is the meaningful purpose of life or you feel that being joyful is the true essence of being alive; you are choosing to spin a story for yourself to create some sort of meaning that stops you from committing hara-kiri.

Because, if we don’t even have a meaning to our life, a hope of a better future, then what’s the point of living after all.

The meaning that we choose for our lives gives us hope for a better future. And once this hope is lost, the mind is unable to sense a direction and reason for living. Our hope is our reason that we use to subsist n number of hardships and struggles.

People with suicidal thoughts are, therefore, only an instance of lost meaning in life. It’s an effect caused when their chosen story fails to deliver on its purpose.

About seven years ago, my story failed to deliver meaning, to generate a sense of hope and as a result, I found myself squabbing on the bathroom floor in an anxious attempt to kill myself. Fortunately, my attempt failed due to a minor technical error and I received an opportunity to reconstruct a story for myself.

Every new story acts as a new beginning, a new life. And a new life is what every person with suicidal anxiety needs. Something better to pursue and identify oneself. Because whether you believe you are a great writer, or an academic scholar, or a rockstar musician, or a beautiful band player: you are spinning a story, a little value narrative, to identify the self.

Our stories of the past describe our identity and our stories of the future paint our hopes. And it’s the ability and freedom to narrate and step into these stories, to live them for real, which are the true powers of life, and the true meaning of being alive.


Footnotes:-

I am referring 1950s and there are numerous recorded cases of divorce where the dispute was for less than 5 INR or 0.070 USD
For further input on the influence of science, see – Mark Manson (2018). Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. Pg. 116-122
The growing trend of discovering ourselves and the meaning of our life is observed significantly more in rich and developed countries/societies than developing or poor countries/societies. See – Oishi, Shigehiro & Diener, Ed (2013). Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations. Psychological science. 25. 10.1177/0956797613507286.
See – Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases
There are different types of cognitive biases that influence our everyday choices. See – Christopher Dwyer (2018). 12 Common Biases that affect how we make everyday decisions. Psychology Today.
See – Karl Popper (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
By selling concert tickets for Yoga Camps, Meditational Workshops, and other false ideas and beliefs.
See – Mark Manson (2018). Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. Pg. 89-95
The estimated number of casualties during World War II.