I know, I know. It’s a bait and switch. You come for politics and, instead, I hit you with a philosophical question. But it’s a question that’s been vexing me for some time, and I think I’ve come up with an answer. Here goes:
What is the meaning of life?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you think life has meaning.
The meaning of life is what we choose to make of our lives. For some people, their purpose on the earth is writ large. There are the Florence Nightingales and Mother Theresas whose lives are consumed by an overriding passion to serve others. There are the Winston Churchills who are driven by an overriding passion to lead others — presumably for the benefit of those being led.
And then, of course, there are the people who unexpectedly have a central purpose thrust upon them and who rise to the challenge. In that category, I think, are all those people we read about who are going through the daily lives and suddenly find themselves rescuing a train full of people from a terrorist attack or the young men and women who find themselves in a war zone and discover that they can fight. Think of Audie Murphy, the sharecropper’s child, who became one of the most decorated combat soldiers in World War II.
Most of us, though, do not believe that we have a higher calling nor do we find ourselves in situations where we have greatness thrust upon us. Instead, we just go through our lives: we grow up, attend school, get a job, and raise children. All those activities, of course, have some meaning, especially procreation, which is the minimum requirement for all species in order to survive.
What I’ve come to believe, though, is that the people who get the most satisfaction from life are those who looking beyond mere survival and deliberately imbue other aspects of their lives with meaning. This is not the same as becoming a special snowflake who believes that his every thought and act is an exquisite thing that must be revealed to and cherished by those in his world. Instead, it comes from looking at the things we do in our lives and making conscious decisions to improve ourselves.
I’ve thought about this a lot since I made a new friend recently who occasionally bemoans the fact that we hadn’t met when we were younger so that our friendship could have had a longer time for us to enjoy. That’s a nice thought, but the reality is that I was not a nice person when I was young. True to my semi-European, semi-Communist upbringing, as well as a very large dollop of my own difficult personality, I was snobby, prudish, condescending, perpetually discontent, and frequently quite unkind. Looking back, I wouldn’t even have wanted to be friends with me, and it’s a testament to the good quality of people with whom I surrounded myself that they were willing to be my friends.
I’d like to think that I’m a nicer person now. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve giving meaning to my life by refusing just to plod through one day after another, unthinkingly. Instead, I’ve given some thought every day to how I can be a better person: a better friend, a better lawyer, a kinder person, a better daughter, a better mother, etc. I’ve concluded that, if there is a God, that God gave me the capacity to grow and improve throughout my life. It’s, therefore, an act remarkably close to sacrilege to ignore that unique human attribute.
Again, this is not about being a special snowflake and assuring everybody that I’ve reached peak human perfection (which, Lord knows, I haven’t). It’s about imbuing the ordinary passage of my days by concentrating on how I can improve myself — a very American concept when one thinks about. So perhaps the meaning of life is to be American. 😉
This is about as deep as my deep thoughts get, reminding me of the insult I once heard an ignorant Leftist (was it Gary Trudeau?) throw at Ronald Reagan: “You can wade through his deepest thoughts without getting your ankles wet.” If you’d like to take this thread into deeper philosophical waters, please do. I’d love to hear what others have to say on this subject.