The Meaning Of The Question
The question “What is the meaning of life?” has two obvious interpretations.
First, it is a cosmic, philosophical or religious quest that seeks answers for life, the universe and everything. The big stuff.
Second, it is subjective and asks essentially “what is the meaning of your life?”
The first interpretation is good for starting wars or going slowly mad, but almost certainly has no answer – or at least no answer that we humans might comprehend.
We have scarcely any insight as to how life even exists let alone why. Simple organic compounds that combine to form recognisably living cells that eventually accumulate into slightly more complex creatures that presume to question their own existence (or watch TV instead).
Even if there is a purpose behind it all (which is far from certain) we cannot know for who or what that purpose exists. Like the universe itself, it may just be because that’s how things happened to fall; no particular reason necessary.
The second interpretation however, we can probably get close enough to to root out some decent answers.
Dying To Find Out
Imagine for a moment that this will be your last day on this earth; it is certain that you will not see tomorrow.
Now look back on your life and judge for yourself whether this life about to end, your life, had any clear purpose and whether that purpose was fulfilled.
I rather doubt that you will actually perform this exercise on account of it being difficult and morbid.
Yet even as you read this, your life is slipping like fine grains of sand through your fingers and some day sooner than you care to pretend, for human lives are measured only in tens of years, you really will find yourself contemplating questions such as:
- What do I regret?
- What am I proud of?
- What do I wish I had done but never did?
- What did I do that I wish I hadn’t?
- What was it all for?
Ironically it won’t seem at all difficult then. You will find it both natural and unavoidable.
And unless you can tick all the boxes for a free pass to Nirvana, chances are that like most people you won’t see a picture of perfection to which nothing need be added or altered.
It’s just a pity that, again like most people, it’s probable that you’ll only bother to take stock when you have run out of time to do anything about it. There’s nothing quite so useless yet so common as a death-bed inventory.
Hopefully though, you will find much to chalk up on the positive side of the slate: raising children, professional successes, personal achievements (I count creating beautiful gardens among the things I consider worthwhile in my tally).
There are always regrets of course, and countless varieties of “what if”. That’s how life is. We make choices. The doors we enter and the paths we choose inevitably mean that other doors remain closed and other paths unexplored.
Sometimes we screw it up, yet if we failed to make mistakes we would also fail to learn and develop.
Having it all is not an option. Beating yourself up for not having had it all is accordingly stupid. But there is a further column of reckoning to take into account.
No Song Unsung, No Wine Untasted
There’s an old expression: don’t die with the song still in you. Yet so many do, which is tragic because that “song” encapsulates the true meaning of your life.
The world is, and always has been, full of souls who leave it till only the last few grains of sand remain before the realization hits them. That they barely managed to mumble a few lines from the first verse. The rest was left, and will remain forever, unsung.
I suspect the reasons this is such a routine occurrence are twofold.
Firstly, it requires deliberate effort to determine what will give true meaning to your life, although as mentioned above, it’s relatively easy to look back and realise what should have been your guiding purpose.
Secondly, even those who have a good idea how the words and music should go often fail to metaphorically open their mouths and sing aloud. Usually because they are afraid.
Afraid? Of what? Of failing, of succeeding, of appearing foolish, of possibly losing what little they already have, mostly of the unknown.
But turn this around and you will see there is worse to fear through inaction – the fear that the music will stop before you have sung your song.
How foolish all those other fears will seem then; how they held you back from seizing your chances as you stand there, still mute before the mic having simply tapped your toe through your entire backing track. And that’s it; no applause, no second performance, just exit stage-left.
Don’t Let Life Kill Your Dream
You will face the end one day, who knows when exactly, but somewhere between the next few minutes and the new few decades. Either way, not all that long really.
But between now and then you at least have a choice. You can choose to simply pass the time, or you can choose to live.
You can try to ensure that when that day of reckoning arrives you will be able to say “yes, it was worth it, I knew what I wanted from life and I found enough”.
I don’t expect you to try now, after all you’re busy browsing the web, but when you do get a quiet moment to yourself, try that exercise I mentioned at the beginning.
Imagine your life can go no further, that you’re in a plane about to crash, and let your life pass before you and catalog the good, the not so good, and all you wish you could have done.
These are the things that have moulded and directed you, helped make you who you are and still define your hopes and dreams. You have a priceless opportunity to see to it that next time you revisit this list there will be rather less left undone.
In Les Miserables the character Fantine looks ruefully back before she dies, penniless and unable to care for her precious daughter. The song begins: I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living.
It’s a devastating song that invariably reduces the audience to tears, yet so many, many people wind up singing their own sad variant of this. The best I can suggest is: don’t become yet another one of them.
And In The End
This may not have been quite what you expected, but in the end it is death that gives meaning to life. That’s neither a bad or sad thing, it’s just how it is. A finite resource that fools squander and the wise cherish while it lasts.
We cannot answer “why are we here?” or “why does life itself exist?” but we can, if we want to and each in our own special way, answer “why am I here?”
What is the meaning of life? It’s a pointless question. What is the meaning of your life? Only you can answer that. But you can answer it.