The Weight of Meaning

Existing between unbearable lightness and unendurable heaviness.

Existence precedes essence.

This assumption is the foundation on which I’ll build.

By essence I mean the conception, the idea of something. A tool is visualized before it exists, that is, before someone creates it – you start with an idea of what it should do, and thus what it should be like, and only then build it.

That’s why it’s a tool – because it’s meant to do something. It exists for that reason alone; if it didn’t perform that use, it would never have been created. Thus, in the case of a tool, essence precedes existence.

The claim that human existence precedes essence is the claim that there is no Creator – no one created humans. Those who believe in a Creator will diverge here.

But what about evolution – is there an essence in evolution that precedes existence? Sometimes, it can seem that way.

Take the eye, for instance. It’s common enough to say it evolved ‘to see’ – that there was a goal of seeing, and the eye was gradually fashioned to achieve that.

Although I’m no expert, I doubt it worked like that. No gang of genes got together and said, “Boyos, we need to create something to focus better, let’s get to work on an eye’.

Much more likely that changes over time gave a survival advantage to creatures that developed some features that aided vision over others without these features. And subsequently, over generations, building on these changes, we came up with something like the eye, although no one, neither creature nor gene, ever planned it that way.

If existence preceded essence, we can say one thing with certainty – that humans (and perhaps all creatures) are not tools. A human is an end in itself, not a pawn to be sacrificed for some ideal. A case for humanism, though that’s not the focus here.


Existence precedes essence only claims that there’s no predefined, ‘God-given’ essence, ready and waiting for you before you exist.

It doesn’t rule out essence, only predefined essence. In other words, essence can be created after existence.

Essence is purpose – what something does.

Meaning is purpose too – I can’t imagine a ‘meaning’ that doesn’t guide you in your actions, doesn’t make some claim about what you should do, where you should direct your efforts.

What this implies is there is no ready-made meaning waiting for us. No ‘one true’ meaning, or single ‘the‘ purpose of life that holds for all beings.

You can live without a meaning.

Or you can create a meaning for yourself. You can create it by yourself, or you can accept someone else’s claims as your meaning – and that is the same as creating it by yourself, since you choose to do that.

It’s probably easier to reject meaning than it is to create it, though that says nothing about which is better. It’s trivial to select a large enough time frame like a billion years and claim that nothing matters (how can it, when there’s no one around long enough for it to matter to?) – that sort of intellectualism only impresses teenagers.

To genuinely create a meaning you still have to believe in something, for better or worse, and that requires some conviction, some commitment – which is at least something.


The idea of meaning is the idea of importance. That what you do, or don’t do, matters. It’s not insignificant.

‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’


Meaning can make living bearable by giving something to strive toward – so that there’s a direction to move in rather than wander aimlessly. And it can make suffering bearable by its reassurance that there is some point to suffering – that it’s not in vain.

Perhaps that’s why it literally ‘gives meaning’ to life.

Without meaning, it’s hard not to sometimes wonder what the point is of continuing. Today is a grind, and there’s nothing to look forward to tomorrow.

Although, rejecting meaning doesn’t have to be the same as rejecting living. Nihilism is not fatalism; it doesn’t imply giving up. Believing that life is meaningless isn’t the same as believing that it’s ‘pointless’.

Meaninglessness is like a friendly soccer game – there’s no ‘purpose’; you don’t get anything for winning.

Fatalism is the refusal to play. But just because the game is a friendly one doesn’t mean you have to refuse to play.

And nihilism can just as easily take you to the other extreme, hedonism. A fatalist refuses to play the game because it’s purposeless; a hedonist loves the game because it’s purposeless.

The hedonist maximizes pleasure – trying only to score goals, and not bothering defending, because there’s no reason to, it’s just a friendly game, it doesn’t matter if you concede goals, and scoring is fun while defending is onerous.

Which is to say that something meaningless, that is, with no larger purpose – doesn’t have to be pointless, that is devoid of any value. Though this is not an advocacy for any ideology, let alone hedonism.

It’s just that nihilism and fatalism, meaninglessness and pointlessness are so often taken to be the same thing – they don’t have to be.

None of which is to say that meaninglessness is bad and meaning is good. Rarely is there anything that’s an unalloyed good, that doesn’t cut both ways.

Rather than good and bad, it’s easier to see the difference as heavy and light.


Meaning is the idea of weight, of heaviness, because it is a burden to bear and a weight to carry.

The idea that I have some purpose to fulfil, or if not fulfil at least to strive towards is not simply a reassurance for me but also a claim on me. To live with meaning is to live believing your actions aren’t trivial, insignificant, of no consequence.

The belief that what you do matters works both ways. It’s the reassurance that your actions, and thus by extension you, are not worthless, of no significance to anyone. But if something matters, then its failure matters too.

It’s the feeling of guilt for not trying to fulfil what you believe to be your meaning, or inadequacy for trying and failing to.

Meaning devoid of weight couldn’t be meaning, it would have no power to sustain.

Weight, or rather heaviness, is at one and the same time what sustains and crushes.

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground… The heaviest of burdens is simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Just as a feather is blown away unless pinned by a weight, meaning helps pin to earth a life that might otherwise try to fly away. And to live with a weight over you is not easy – even a light load, if you carry it long enough, is difficult to bear.

Seen one way then, heaviness is what makes living bearable – this is the idea that ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.‘ And another way, that a life lived with heaviness is not easily bearable, consumed by its own artificial importance it creates to escape something.

That something is lightness.


Lightness is freedom.

Freedom from delusions of significance. Nothing matters.

To live lightly is to live untouched and uncontaminated by ideas of self-importance.

If to live with a weight is oppressive, then why would someone choose to? Perhaps because living without weight is even harder.

What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

It sounds fun at first to live without weight, unconstrained by anything, just as it sounds fun to live as on vacation, not having to work.

Maybe it’s a preference, and weightlessness suits some people. Some people might love nothing more than a permanent vacation, watching TV and sleeping and travelling everyday; I know I’d hate it.

Weightlessness often ends up like that, though it doesn’t have to – but when you don’t have any reason to do anything else, you tend to take the path of least resistance.

Meaninglessness is the idea of lightness because there is no burden to bear, no weight to carry.

The idea that I have no purpose to fulfil, nothing I need to or ought to strive towards is not simply my emancipation but also my judgment.

To live without meaning is to live believing your actions are insignificant, of no consequence in a larger sense. And the belief that what you do doesn’t matter too works both ways.

It’s freedom from claims on you, from feeling guilt for your choices and from feeling obligated to choose a certain way.

If nothing really ‘matters’, then everything is the same and you’re free to choose – whatever you choose is equally valueless, and thus equal, there being no difference among things each equal to zero.

But it’s also the judgment that your actions, and thus by extension you, are worthless, of no real significance. Lightness devoid of insignificance couldn’t be lightness, it would have no power to liberate.

Lightness is at one and the same time what frees and what condemns.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

A bird can’t take to the air unless free of weight, and yet, with nothing to direct it, it has no destination in particular to move towards. It has lost its ties to the earth, and yet found no new ones in the sky it’s now condemned to fly in.

And to live without weight is not easy – carrying a load at least gives you something to direct your thought and strength toward, if nothing else.

Seen one way then, lightness makes living easier, removing the chains that shackle you. And another way, that a life lived lightly is hardly bearable, tortured by its own triviality and inconsequentiality.

Weighing Things

If I believe in meaning, that my life has some purpose, some goal, that very purpose itself becomes a weight that chains me, tying me down with its obligations.

You can, of course, try to tell yourself that you have a purpose, but that it’s not really that important that you need to strain to fulfil it. Perhaps some people can get away with that; I can’t imagine a meaning strong enough to sustain you yet weak enough not to press down on you.

To live with lightness, devoid of any meaning, on the other hand, is to live unburdened, to literally live ‘lightly’. Not tied down by any higher ‘purpose’, free of the obligations and encumbrances such notions entail.

And yet, if you’re completely light, not tied to anything, then why do anything in particular, or indeed anything at all? Without any reason to bear suffering – and to live is to bear at least some suffering – why should anyone? And if you do, then why not pursue every pleasure, no matter the cost?

I can’t imagine a genuine absence of any commitment to anything that doesn’t degenerate either into pure hedonism or self-destruction to a state of non-existence.

That nothing matters is unbearably trivial; that everything matters is unendurably pompous. Between these extremes of unbearable lightness and unendurable heaviness is a continuum where humans exist, some inclining towards heaviness and others to lightness.

I lean towards lightness, that some things matter, most don’t.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with heaviness if it’s chosen consciously – if it’s added mindlessly, you carry a lot of needless baggage, giving importance to things that you don’t care about.

Individuals can determine the heaviness of things for themselves; things aren’t heavy or light, it is we who make them so. What people tell you is heavy doesn’t have to be; what you believe to be heavy might be light to others.

Most of what I do – including writing essays like this – isn’t really ‘important’, but it matters to me, and that’s enough for me, so I choose to do it.

In other words, you can weigh things.

You can give heaviness to what’s considered light, and make light what’s considered heavy, just as you can accept what the world considers heavy or light.