At some point, most people today have been confronted with the elusive question of the meaning of life. Recently, this has been bothering more so because I couldn’t understand the meaning of my life–or rather what to do with my life–and wanted some sense of direction that I couldn’t seem to find. So when I was browsing around my local bookstore and spotted Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, I snapped it up despite the tiny size that didn’t seem to justify the $11.95 price tag. But this is the secret to the universe here, people, so I relented.
Well now I’m done with it, and surprisingly I wasn’t bestowed with the secret knowledge of time and the cosmos. However, I was presented with the next best thing: a different way of thinking about it. Eagleton compiled information from so many great thinkers on this subject throughout history in a neat little package. What I talk about here is just what I found the most interesting, and my thoughts on that. I highly suggest this book to anyone who has struggled with “the meaning of life.”
Before anything, it is useful to provide the context surrounding this entire inquiry: the meaning of life is not some sort of question that has plagued all peoples in all societies for all of time. For example, most ancient Hebrews would not ask this question because the answer is given through their religious beliefs, and the matter of meaning is woven into the society just as much as the religion is. Now that most of us live in a world where one religion is not a given, even those who do follow a certain faith are not immune to feeling adrift when it comes to meaning. The idea that we ourselves can determine the meaning of our lives can at once be empowering, but also lessen that very same sense of meaning. I also know that even my parents, who are only one generation ahead of me, are not harassed by this question as much as my peers are. They give little thought to it if any, as even asking this question seems foreign to them. Although there are always people who have this question in whatever time, the finding meaning or finding your “passion” are like epidemics nowadays, where once there was barely a whisper of it. One might think of the question presently more as a litmus test for the society that we live in today, rather than something that can objectively be “solved”.
The problem with trying to find an answer to the meaning of life is that there is no answer. At least, not one that we can possibly know of. Someone once said (as vague as this all is) that if you can’t find the solution to a problem, change the question. On one level, this seems like a blatant avoidance of the question and moving on to something else more easily solved. However, in many cases, the problem is not the problem–the real problem is a poorly framed question!
When people ask the meaning of life, they are rarely asking the same thing. Sometimes you could be asking about what is the meaning or direction of your life, other times you could be asking if the progression of the universe is moving towards something, and other times you are asking about the meaning of the suffering in your life if there is one at all. What are you really wondering about when you ponder about the meaning of life? Simply rewording the question could lead to an answer.
Beyond that, the question of the meaning of life could be a question of semantics. Eagleton sources many, most prominent to me Ludwig Wittgenstein, that ask what is actually meant by “meaning” and “life” and comes to various conclusions. When it comes to meaning, it could mean (ha) intention, significance, and “the act of intending to signify something” (35). Even these categories are not mutually exclusive and the edges of their definition are blurry. So then comes the question of if life is in a sense predestined and moving towards something and that is the “meaning”, or if it’s all accidental, but there can still be “meaning” attached to that.
Then we have the nebulous word, “life”. This may lead to questions like, “What is the good life?” But even then, the good life may not be a good life, objectively. What is the meaning attached to the actions we take? Is there an overall narrative to our lives that “makes sense”? Many people like me would tell you, no, our lives are just a series of unfortunate events. I’m just kidding. Sort of.
This only begins to scratch the surface. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case one word is worth ten thousand words and then some. Eagleton covers far more than this and I would venture to say that there is no superfluous words in his 101 page book. Each page packs new ideas and findings into every free space.
The question of life must be juxtaposed against the fact of death, something which we all face. The fact that our time in this life that we know of is limited, yet all we know of is this, urges us to find the significance of anything. The question of the meaning of life would not exist if we were one of the immortals and had a cycle of events continuing on for all of eternity. Our limits are what cause this question to become pressing or of any interest. It could be said that this question is just asking what our lives are adding up to. Of course, another nebulous statement.
With proper framing “The Meaning of Life” question however, the necessity for some sort of one answer fades away, as Terry Eagleton is able to do. To me, I don’t want to spend my time turning over ideas in my mind that I know will lead to nothing. Therefore, the most important thought I can take away from this conversation to bring to action in my life, as the act of living life is arguably closer to the meaning of life than thinking of the meaning of life, is that any sense of meaning (or whatever it is that allows us to live our lives with a sense of contentment or fulfillment) lives in between people. The meaning of our lives are not singular to us, it cannot exist only within ourselves. Rather, the meaning we can take from life is from the relationships that we have, and how we impact those around us and how they impact us. It is about the collective efforts of people and finding your place in society.
When you look at nature, everything has a purpose or a reason. However, it could also be said that they do not exist to move something towards something else. It is all happening in time, in this moment. There is a reason a mountain looks purple from a distance or stars twinkle at night. However, they are not doing this to fulfill some sort of role. They are doing that because that is just what they do. You do not question if it is necessary, it is just something that you enjoy.The trees have their role to fulfill in the ecosystem, but they are not doing it for any reason, they just grow. The reason trees are what they are is because of time and the surrounding ecosystem, but also the surrounding ecosystem is there because of the trees. That’s why I think children rarely ask themselves the “meaning of life,” or rather the meaning of their own life–because they are having too much fun! And they don’t question it too much because they are too busy enjoying it.
Therefore, although it seems trite, it seems to be that the best thing to do is to live a life in which you don’t reach for answers from some outside meaning. Rather, in living a life with and for others, the feeling of meaninglessness disappears. And the best way to live a life with and for others is to delight in the world around you and what others bring to it, while using the best parts of yourself to contribute to that delight.