What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with the years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…
— Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’
Life is a grand adventure - or it is nothing. — Helen Keller
The life which is unexamined is not worth living. — Plato
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. — Marie Curie
Life may have no meaning, or, even worse, it may have a meaning of which you disapprove.
It’s possible that the whole purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.
Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.
Even if we were to live in paradise, with nectar flowing from taps in every wall, where God satisfied our every dream and wiped away every tear, you would, I fear, hear a familiar voice piping up with those memorable words: ‘What is the meaning of life?’
Back in ancient Greece, philosophers would often gaze over the azure Mediterranean, considering obscure questions such as this, but for the next two thousand or so years most people only had time to hunt for food, to fight various marauding hoards or to earn a living. But in our modern world of leisure, people can once more, for better or worse, indulge in such considerations.
The men sat sipping their tea in silence.
After a while the klutz said, “Life is like a bowl of sour cream.”
“Like a bowl of sour cream?” asked the other.
“How should I know? What am I, a philosopher?”
The nature of human existence has long exercised the minds of philosophers. Following the Reformation and the Age of Reason, there was René Descartes (1596-1650), whose ideas were summarised in his famous statement:-
Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)
which really flies in the face of rational argument, since science requires a physical mind to exist before it can create any thoughts. However, by his clever language, Descartes established (in the fashion of modern artists and writers) a clique of followers, who, even if they didn’t understand his ideas, happily shared the limelight. In essence, he had taken Plato’s principle of pure thought being the highest level of existence, and extended its power into the physical world. This humanist approach was intended to dispense with the need for God, as indicated by the use of the term ‘I am’, which is also used in references to God throughout much of the Old Testament. In the modern world, Descartes is often seriously mocked, as shown by these quotes:-
Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum. (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am). — Ambrose Bierce
I think, therefore I am… I think.
Descartes was sitting at a sidewalk cafe, having finished his meal.
A waiter asked him, ‘Would you care for desert?’
‘I think not,’ replied Descartes.
Then he disappeared.
I’m pink, therefore I’m spam. — Monty Python
The last example demonstrates how an apparently reasonable form of argument can produce a nonsensical conclusion. Perhaps Descartes himself didn’t take his ideas too seriously either, since he also made the following quirky observation:-
Common sense is the most evenly distributed quantity in the world. Everyone thinks he has enough.
Numerous philosophical or metaphysical ideas have appeared in recent centuries, most of which appear to require a degree in mental gymnastics. One of the most difficult ideas is existentialism, introduced by Soren Kierkegaard (1811-55), a Danish Christian, and further developed by the atheistic Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), which dictates that reason should be discarded in favour of personal experience. This requires us to leap into the unknown, usually in defiance of rational thinking. After Sartre’s death, the following piece of doggerel, entitled A Lost Life, appeared in the Dipole column of the IEE newspaper:-
A philosopher chap called
Said that life on this planet
He has recently died,
So unless he lied,
His thoughts mean
nothing at all.
Unfortunately, existentialism, like so many recent ideas, is relativistic, meaning that it has no fixed points of reference, unlike a traditional faith. As a result, we are encouraged to believe and do entirely what we like, often creating a vortex of instability in our lives. It also allows us to indulge in the curse of the modern age known as materialism, the love of worldly things. Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of Brave New World, saw the dangers of the latter only too clearly, stating that:-
The moral peril to humanity of thoughtlessly accepting these conveniences [of materialism] (with their inherent disadvantages) as constituting a philosophy of life is now becoming apparent. For the implications of this disruptive materialism… are that human beings are nothing but bodies, animals, machines…
Sadly, many people are deluded into thinking that life simply consists of getting more and more physical possessions. Unfortunately, a great many of them don’t see the futility of such things until they approach the end of their lives.
It is beautiful, the world, and life itself. I am glad I have lived.
— Dante Gabriel Rossetti, speaking to William Sharp on the cliffs at Birchington, shortly before his death in 1882
When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.
A lifetime isn’t nearly long enough to figure out what it’s all about.
If your aim in life is nothing; you can’t miss.
Most people live their lives partly in the ‘here and now’ and partly in the world of their imagination. Philosophers have argued endlessly as to which is the superior, although the author suspects that concentrating on the real world is best, if only to avoid being killed by a bus. The existentialist Albert Camus (1913-60), thought it more important than this, saying:-
For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
Being too detached may also cause us to be described in the following terms:-
All his life he has looked away… to the horizon, to the sky, to the future.
Never his mind on where he was, on what he was doing.
We should also be grateful for the beauty of this world, as eulogised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in these words:-
Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
An appreciation of life and beauty should encourage us to use what we have to its best advantage. Christ explains this in the Parable of the Talents, where three servants receive varying amounts of money, but not all use it wisely. The story ends with:-
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
This should also lead us to understand that we have responsibilities towards others in this world, as well as a vital role of stewardship for the planet itself. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Testament’, by the Indian chief Seathl:-
Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.
If people spit upon the ground they spit upon themselves. This we know.
The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. This we know.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.
Human beings did not weave the web of life; they are merely a strand in it.
Whatever they do to the web they do to themselves.
When you are young, you enjoy a sustained illusion that sooner or later something marvellous is going to happen, that you are going to transcend your parents’ limitations… At the same time, you feel sure that in all the wilderness of possibility; in all the forests of opinion, there is a vital something that can be known — known and grasped. That we will eventually know it, and convert the whole mystery into a coherent narrative. So that then one’s true life — the point of everything — will emerge from the mist into a pure light, into total comprehension. But it isn’t like that at all. But if it isn’t, where did the idea come from, to torture and unsettle us?
— Brian Aldiss, ‘Helliconia Summer’
But that is the object of long living, that man should cease to care about life.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, from ‘Will o’ the Mill’
You never learn as much in a good life as you do in a hard one.
— Leon Jaselsky, a Ukrainian held in Britain as a prisoner of war during World War II
There are ten or twenty basic truths, and life is the process of discovering them over and over and over.
— David Nichols
It’s just another splinter on the banister of life.
— Bernie Clifton, comedian, following vandalism of his car
The world can be said to be divided between those who never learn from their experiences and those that do. Unfortunately, the former invariably make a mess of their lives whilst the others are often boring and uninspiring. The trick is to understand the risks involved and to be willing to accept any consequences as part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’.
Funnily enough, by the time we’ve managed to learn all that we are able to understand, we’re taken out of this life. A rather extreme comparison, perhaps, with the scientist, who having done well in his field, is promoted to a management post, and then has to get on with it. It’s much the same with life in general: here Susan Howatch, writing in ‘Penmarric’ describes the mystery:-
Everything in the world is part of a design. Everything has meaning and purpose and a place in the pattern of existence, only it’s not always possible to understand what that design is. Only God can understand the design, because He invented it. It’s like a magic puzzle. We can’t expect to understand everything. Some things are beyond the bounds of human understanding, but if we trust in God and believe in Him, no harm can come to us. We must have faith in our part of the design — in the part He has given us to play, and if it appears dissatisfying to us we must always realise He knows best and that everything is part of a pattern more perfect than any mortal can ever visualise.
Execute every act of thy life as though it were thy last. — Marcus Aurelius
Life: That brief interlude between nothingness and eternity.
Life is the childhood of our immortality. — Goethe
Death is the side of life turned way from us. — Maria Rilke, German poet
… a chance to rediscover the profound wisdom of those who have made the difficult journey through this life before us; those who, like our Lord Jesus Christ, taught us that this life is but one passing phase of our existence and that reality lies within each one of us. — Charles, Prince of Wales, Millennium speech
If everything came to an end at our death in this world, then life, it has to be admitted, would seem rather pointless. However, virtually all faiths and cultures accept the concept of immortality. The following, quoted from ‘The Bridge of San Luis Ray’, was written in 1927 by Thornton Wilder, following the collapse of a bridge, which resulted in the loss of five lives:-
But soon we will die, and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves will be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.
Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
True though this sentiment may be, some kind of faith is needed for it to rise above a mere abstraction or wishful thinking. Faith, as in the world of the existentialist, requires a leap into the unknown, as illustrated in this amusing quote:-
A man fell off a mountain and, as he fell, saw a branch and grabbed for it. By superhuman effort he was able to get a precarious grip on it. As he was hanging there for dear life, he looked up and cried out, “Is anybody there?”
A deep majestic voice answered, “Yes my son, I am here. What do you need?”
“Help me!!” cried the man.
“I will help you”, said the voice, “Just let go of the branch and you’ll be safe. All you have to do is trust.”
The man thought for a moment and cried out:
“Anybody ELSE up there?”
Jesus Christ indicated that very little faith was required to get us through this life and the next, when he said:-
If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Although even though this tiny grain can seem beyond our reach, we must continue onwards. To do this, we must live slightly apart from the world, as did Georgiana Burne-Jones, when she wrote to Sydney Cockerell two years before her death, saying:-
I wish, by the way, that I knew who separated Time from eternity; there seems only one thing to me, and I always feel that I am in eternity.
In its original form this question seems futile, since if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t be able to ask it. As it stands, it questions our own existence, which, since we don’t have any real control over the situation, is an entirely pointless exercise.
So what does the question really mean? Life, in itself, doesn’t appear to have any meaning, in the same way that a building or a machine doesn’t normally have any meaning, although it may well have a purpose. So perhaps the question should be:
Now the term ‘life’ needs to be considered carefully: are we talking about life in general or our own life? Since we can’t actually change cosmic things, we must restrict the question to our own existence, which leads to a rephrasing of the question as:
Every purpose must be directed towards an object. Human beings serve, in varying proportions, themselves, other people or God. Those that direct their actions towards themselves are usually deemed as selfish, frequently indulging in only those things that give them pure pleasure. Those that serve others are considered compassionate, although the underlying motives for their actions may also be selfish and used in a way to improve their popularity, or they can be based on serving God. People that appear to serve God are often thought of as saintly, although sometimes their real reasons are selfish or designed to please others.
In the final analysis, our lives being finite, our only purpose must be to act in harmony with the universe, to do what we know to be right. Failing this, all our efforts to help ourselves, or even to help others and the world itself, will be lost in the dust of time.
©Ray White 2004, 2006.