The Meaning of Life... Revealed (Finally)
Friday, May 16, 2008
It's an age-old question. Perhaps the age-old question.
What is the meaning of life?
Late one night during my freshmen year at college, a loud group in my dorm set out to resolve the question once and for all. Forceful, confident opinions ensued.
However, as I was clearing the beer cans off the floor the next morning, I couldn't recall that any particular light was shed on the subject.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "And so it goes."
We weren't the only deep thinkers who failed on this front. Theologians have wrestled with the question for centuries. Philosophers and their students have tied themselves in knots over it. Mystics have eaten mushrooms and meditated on it. Even Monty Python took a stab at it. Still... no luck.
Today we resume the quest. Let's pick up the trail where Hugh Moorhead left off.
Moorhead was a Professor of Philosophy at Northeastern University. Over the course of more than twenty years, he mailed his favorite books to their authors (most of them well-known intellectuals) for an autograph. Each time he wrote a letter expressing his appreciation of the work, and asked the author to inscribe the inside cover with a comment "on the meaning or purpose of life."
Not surprisingly, many refused to take the bait.
Physicist and science writer Freeman Dyson responded, "You ask: what is the meaning or purpose of life? I can only answer with another question: do you think we are wise enough to read God's mind?"
Author Cormac McCarthy retorted: "A successful life is one that has no need to ask the question."
Poet T.S. Eliot also took a pass, apologizing for not having got to the point where he could sum it all up on a flyleaf.
But a number of authors took their best shot, many of them drawing inspiration from their religious beliefs. For example, Harvey Cox, author of "The Seduction of the Spirit," said, "The purpose of life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."
Other responses were secular. Leonard Bernstein wrote: "For me, the purpose of life is to live it as fully as possible and be grateful every day for the privilege of sharing it."
Western writer Louis L'Amour said, "The meaning and purpose of life? To do, and to become."
American educator Paul Arthur Schlipp wrote it "is to achieve a high development and integration of reason, of morality, and of spirituality - and to commit one's self to a cause greater than one's self. Tell me what your cause is, and I will tell you who you are."
Quite a few of Moorhead's respondents argued that there is no single "answer" to this thorniest of questions.
Steven M. Cahn, author of "Fate, Logic and Time," insisted, "The meaning of life is invented, not discovered."
Many others concurred, writing variations on this theme. Science writer Isaac Asimov was one, adding, "It is always possible for an individual to invest his own life with meaning that he can find significant. He can so order his life that he may find as much beauty and wisdom in it as he can, and spread as much of that to others as possible."
Similarly, Paul Kurtz, author of "The Transcendental Temptation," wrote, "The meanings that we untap in life are those that we create, the dreams, plans and projects that we live for. How exciting these can be are a measure of our imagination and creativity."
In all, Moorhead received dozens of thought-provoking answers. Over the years I've heard many more, some of them hilarious.
For sheer bullheadedness, for example, Gertrude Stein is hard to beat: "There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."
Stein's view aside, I recently discovered an "answer" that resonated with me because it comes with an implied kick in the pants.
Australian Matthew Kelly, author of "The Rhythm of Life," says the essential meaning and purpose of life is to become "the best-version-of-yourself."
Kelly reminds us that what we do in our lives may bring us financial rewards, status, fame, power and possessions. But genuine happiness and lasting fulfillment are not the by-product of doing and having. Who you become is infinitely more important than what you do or what you have.
Kelly says, "It is the quest to improve ourselves, to be all we are capable of being, to test our limits, and to grow steadily toward the-best-version-of-ourselves that brings meaning to our lives."
There's plenty here to keep us occupied. Think about it. What would it take for you to become your best, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually?
Decide what that is - in the unlikely event that you don't already know - and devote yourself to realizing it. The beauty of this approach is that it takes our minds off judging others and puts us on the road to improving ourselves.
Not coincidentally, this is exactly the message of every great wisdom tradition. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."
This best-version-of-yourself philosophy can be applied to every area of your life. We all have weaknesses that need attention. But we also have personal strengths. Some of us are built to pursue excellence in athletics. Others have a great aptitude for science or mathematics. Maybe the important thing for you right now is to become the best parent, spouse, son or daughter you can be. Perhaps you feel your life's mission is to feed the poor or build houses for the homeless. Whatever it is, embrace it.
And don't kid yourself that you're too old... or it's too late.
Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome when he was seventy-two. Nelson Mandela was seventy-five when he was elected president of South Africa. Benjamin Franklin was seventy-nine when he invented bifocals. Frank Lloyd Wright completed his work on the Guggenheim Museum when he was ninety-one. And Don Byerly was a hundred and three when he finally climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest.
(Ok, I made up that last one. But the others are good.)
Whatever your station in life, you can find purpose, meaning and direction by committing to becoming the best version of yourself. Where your unique talents intersect with the world's needs, there you will find your mission.
As Robert Louis Stevenson said more than a century ago, "To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end in life."
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