Isn’t the meaning of life the most profound and elusive mystery of all, unknown to most of us? Surely anyone who tells you they have the answer is joking, mad or simply mistaken…
I hope not, because I think I could answer the question. I can do this, not because I am especially wise. If only! I can do it because it has all been done already… I think…
But first you’ve got to understand that you can’t expect to get a sensible answer unless you ask a sensible question. But what the hell is “What’s the meaning of life?” or “What’s it all about?” supposed to mean? They may be grammatical, but so are “What’s the meaning of cheese?” and “What’s grass all about?” – and I dare anyone to give a serious answer to either.
We think of the quest for life’s meaning as like a journey along a yellow brick road which will lead us to an awesome, mysterious source of all the answers. The truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, the grandeur and remoteness of the meaning of life is all just a front. Pull back the curtain and the mystery vanishes.
If the meaning of life is not some esoteric piece of wisdom, a hidden key that, once discovered, will unlock the secrets of the universe and end our quest for understanding, then what is it? It might help to start by trying to imagine what you’d really like to know.
The most natural interpretation is that we all are in a way puzzled by why we are all here. But even that is ambiguous. Is that a question about where we came from or where we’re going?
Compare that to a more mundane question, such as why on earth you are sitting in the front row waiting for a Steve Hofmeyr concert to begin. One answer is because you bought a ticket. That explains why you’re there in a backward-looking way. Another answer is that you’re there because you want to hear Steve sing, which explains your presence in a forward-looking (though somewhat mysterious) way. The explanation you are interested in depends on what you need to know. If you just wake up to find yourself in this scenario, it’s the backward-looking explanation you need. If you’re having last-minute doubts about the wisdom of your choice of entertainment, the forward-looking explanation is what should exercise you.
I never thought I would say this, but in this very particular sense, life is like a Steve Hofmeyr concert: if we want to know why we are here, we can look backwards or forwards, and the answers we get, or fail to get, are very different and satisfy different needs.
It is perhaps surprising how often it is assumed that a look back to our origins will lead us to the meaning of life. It certainly did not work out that way for Victor Frankenstein’s creation. He was desperate to know where he had come from and, unlike us, he discovered the awful truth. Yet the revelation did not shed light on his life’s meaning, it just pissed him off. What is true of the monster is true of us: knowing why your creator made you does not settle the question of life’s meaning, which is one reason why believing in God does not make as big a difference to how we understand the meaning of life as may be supposed.
Oh yes, I, as Christian, can argue that I have only one purpose – to serve and to live for the Glory of God, but deep inside I still always want to know the answer to more – that one little nagging question: what is the meaning of MY life?? And meaning and purpose although supportive of each other are definitely not the same.
And the fact that I might not know the answer (yet) does not mean that life has no meaning. It just means, that human life might not come with any pre-assigned meaning. Life’s meaning is not given to it by its Creator.
Might it be that, perhaps then, YOU are the main (and possibly only) contributor of meaning to your life?
And rather than answer the question of why we are here by looking backwards, we should look forwards. What future purpose or goal would make this life worth living? The problem with this line of inquiry was identified more than two millennia ago by the patron philosopher of common sense, Aristotle. His point was that we do many things for the sake of something else.
We eat to live, work to pay the mortgage, study to pass exams and so on. But unless at least one thing is done for its OWN sake, there is no point in doing anything. Not everything can be a means to an end: there must be ends which are valuable in their own right. So if living must at some stage be valuable in itself, if it is to be worthwhile, why not here and now?
To put it rather dramatically: Why should we think that this life, with all its problems and pressures, really is valuable or have any worth in itself? And even though I would dearly like to live up to my purpose (that of serving and living to the Glory of God), I still have personal problems and fears and failures (and bills) to face every day – and NOTHING I do to address these in my human form can be ignored just because I am in the process of living a meaningful life.
All of us know of things that give life value. But one person’s list might entail focusing less on their own pleasures and helping eliminate the poor and underpriviledged terrible suffering another person’s may be helping their own children build their lives and yet another’s may be winning a personal struggle (sickness, depression, death, divorce).
This is why there can be no final answer to the question of life’s meaning. There are many things that make life worth holding on to and savouring. But life is unpredictable and we are often mysteries even to ourselves. We think success, happiness, helping others, or surpassing ourselves will make life worth living, but we can always be wrong or frustrated by events.
And that’s it. I could go into more detail; address more of those nagging doubts; explain why having a religious worldview would change things a little, but not as much as you might think; and hopefully present a more complete and convincing argument. But the basic answer would be the same: the only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself.
I know that may not seem like enough, but if you expect a 5-course a la carte banquet, even a eat-as-much-as-you-want (or can) buffet looks shabby in comparison. Trying to work out the meaning of life can be rather like trying to connect a new sound system to accommodate your DSTV decoder, dvd player, TV, hi-fi set and amp, via and through all the plugs and inlet/output sockets in order to get the surround sound from and to all devices and control them all with one remote control – when you realize you’re missing a wire and HiFiCorporation is closed for the long weekend…
The meaning of life? What gives meaning to your life is the fulfillment, achieving or accomplishing of your (and God’s) purpose for you. Unless you know what’s expected of you, you’ll keep yourself busy with serving your problems, your illness, your shortcomings, your finances, your job, your responsibilities, your need to compare yourself with the Jones’s and your ultimate survival instead of life serving you and your purpose.
If you’re still trying to find the meaning of life, the real problem might be that you’re trying to put together an elaborate Maråker cabinet when you have only got a standard three-shelf Billy bookcase (and you have a book collection totalling 10 – including 5 Reader’s Digest collected works and 2 family Bibles).
Might something only seem to be missing because you’re expecting much more?
“Although a man may have no jurisdiction over the fact of his existence, he can hold supreme command over the meaning of existence for him.” Norman Cousins