If there is a single question that has been posed by every single generation of human beings throughout all time, it is probably something along the lines of, “What is the meaning of life?”
If we trust author Douglas Adams’ answer, it is “42”, and yet the ancient Stoic philosophers told us that it was to live in harmony with the divine order, while logicians might answer with another question, such as, “What is the meaning of asking such a question?”
What this range of answers tells us is simple – there is no black-and-white, clear-cut, or obvious solution to the question. Instead, it has to come down to your understanding of yourself and your opinion of your place in the world, universe, time, and so on.
Philosophy, Religion, and Logic
Throughout history, humans have looked at the meaning of life through an array of what we might call lenses or filters. Philosophers have posed questions about the meaning of life and why we are “here”, and spiritual leaders of all kinds have also given their answers to the immortal question. Science has sought to provide some clarification about the matter, and there are always cultural issues that influence each generation with ideas of why we are here.
From encouragement to, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, to our contemporary shouts of, “YOLO!” we remain persistently aware of the fact that life is finite and will end, as well. And perhaps, at no other time in human history has so much information about the value and meaning of life been so widely available. Even with so much information, there are no hard and fast answers simply because the meaning of life is such a personal matter.
For instance, asking several acquaintances to give their answers to such a question, I heard that we are here to evolve over several lifetimes, reincarnate and grow spiritually. I was given a purely scientific answer that we are merely organic life forms that are created by chance and return to the dust. One person asked me why the answer would matter since we have no control over the process of living and dying.
Perhaps the wisest answer to such a question was given to me in a single word: presence.
The Meaning of Life is Discovered Through Being Present
Even a preliminary exploration of the meaning of life proves that there is one common theme among all of the answers, and that is that we are going to live it – no matter what. Someone once said, “90% of life is showing up”, and one author wrote, “No matter how much you understand or don’t about your life, you still have to do the living”. (ScottBerkun.com, 2013)
Perhaps this is the wisest and best place to consider an answer to that titular question. We are alive, and whether we figure out the meaning, we are still going to have to do all of the things it takes to live life. Eating, sleeping, working, growing, and the myriad list of tasks that comprise day-to-day life.
Getting into the car, driving to and from work, doing errands, paying bills, walking the dog or cleaning the cat’s litter box, brushing our teeth, watching TV, buying new shoes… all of these small and simple things are what actually make up our lives. We can easily “check out” while we go through these motions or we might even squander life by resenting the need to do many of these tasks, but that means that we’ve given very little meaning or substance to our lives.
So, let’s just begin by stating that life’s meaning is found in the simplest things that fill our day. If that is the case, it means we must do these things with attention and care.
Consider that you are fortunate enough to be well beyond struggling to survive. You exist in a time and place when scavenging for food or being too busy just trying to stay alive are not your reality. You can pose an abstract questions and spend time contemplating the answers. That alone gives you a clue as to the meaning of your life – it is meant to be lived and appreciated. It is here for you to experience, and to be present.
And with that experience and that presence comes enlightenment, understanding, or knowledge, and it is yours to use wisely and put into action.
You cannot put what you know into action, though, if you are leading a distracted existence. We read often of the perils of social media and an over reliance on mobile devices. We learn that we have a tendency towards negative thoughts and that we have to rewire our brains for happiness, and we discover that forgiveness and unconditional love are some of the best things we can do for ourselves and those around us.
We hear people reminding one another that no one sits on their deathbed crying about not spending more time at the office. Instead, they are sad about their missed opportunities for life experiences. Some talk about grandiose trips they failed to take, but others say they wished they had one last walk in the garden, one final sip of wine, or a beloved pet on their lap again.
So, what does all of this say about the meaning of our lives? It means we have to prioritize defining the meaning of our life, it means we must take action and live. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends”, and so it is with peril that we squander the time we have. Albert Camus said that we should never “Wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day”. Socrates tells us that an “Unexamined life is not worth living”.
There are untold numbers of meanings to life. From savoring the scent of a new baby’s hair to listening to the hiss and pop of a log fire, to re-reading your favorite book to hugging that good friend when they are down, we are given the opportunity to live life as fully as possible, and to find meaning as often as we can. Being present, sharing what we have learned, and never forgetting that it ends may not be answers, but they point us towards them.