The meaning of life always feels like a secretly taboo question to me. Like if you ask what the meaning of life is, or even think about it too much, you’ve given away this crucial piece of information: You’ve just told everyone that you don’t know what the answer is. Or if there even is an answer.
I edited a book recently that delved into this question. There isn’t much I can say about it that’s kind or helpful. Mostly, the answers the author presented were simplistic, materialistic, and soul-numbing. But at least he was willing to consider the question. And that was enough to get me thinking.
Maybe asking about the meaning of life is asking the wrong question.
If we ask it that way — what is the meaning of life? — there’s a hidden assumption to the question that, when I actually think about it, I realize I need to unpack. That assumption is that our lives have external, objective meaning. We could paraphrase the question as, “What is the point of my life?” or “How will my life affect people other than me?” These questions are also worth asking. But they lead to very different answers than the question, the real question, that I hear when people talk about the meaning of life.
The question I hear is more like “What gives my life meaning?” or “What really matters to me?” That’s a question that can lead to life-changing answers. When you really strip down your life and your priorities, how would you answer? Would your answer be friendship, or family, or love? Would it be taking a career path that feeds your soul and enriches your community? Would it be making as much money as you possibly can, regardless of ethics? Would it be just getting by and having time to relax once in a while?
Your answer to that question — what really matters to you? — is one of the hardest and also most important answers to arrive at in your life. It means committing yourself to your answer, committing to think about what you’re doing in the world. Or what you’re not doing. It means taking responsibility for your choice. And once you’ve done that, once you’ve managed to articulate the things that matter most to you… it means being okay with those answers.
That part might be easy for some people. It isn’t for me. I never feel like I’m doing enough. Never have. I volunteer at a local food bank, and I’m training to volunteer at nearby Cuyahoga National Park. I work with clients who have hoarding issues at whatever rate they can afford. I edit books and write poems and blog carry my fair share of emotional labor and support my family and friends… and none of this feels like enough, because there’s always more I know I could be working on. I could go to law school or med school or get a PhD, and earn more intellectual legitimacy. I could have a full-time job instead of working for myself and my partner.
There will always, ALWAYS, be things in the world that I’m not doing. One of the curses of being reasonably good at a reasonable number of things is that there’s no clear life path to follow. It’s not like I have a SINGLE BURNING PASSION to follow — rather, I have many passions, from art to community building to sustainable living to… you get the idea. And that’s the key thing I’m pointing at here.
The world is full of fascinating, worthwhile things to do. Each of them could comprise the meaning of someone’s life. So I propose we use this tired, sneaky old question about the meaning of life to help us sift through all that fascination and discover an answer. I suggest we think not about the things that are the most fun while they’re happening, but the things that leave us feeling fulfilled, energized, satisfied; the things that give meaning to our lives.
I used to say that my life goal was to help create a more sustainable society. I love sustainability; I love the insight it offers into the deep entanglement between people, places, and the economy. And my life goal is still true. But the people side of that tripartite equation is closest to my heart right now. The people I care about give meaning to my life.
Maybe this isn’t quite the kind of answer you thought you’d find here. I won’t claim it’s my final answer. I intend to use this question about the meaning of life to keep on sifting through the ideas I come in contact with, and make the question into a tool to help me focus not only on the things that matter to the rest of the world, but the things that matter to me.
I don’t think there is a right answer or a wrong answer to this question about the meaning of life. There are plenty of other questions buried in the substrata. Implicit: what do you believe about the nature of life? of God? Do you rely on external perception or your own internal feeling-states or some other measure to identify meaning? Do you believe in reincarnation — and does considering the meaning of many lives yield a different answer than the meaning of just one? (and if so, why?) What even constitutes ‘meaning’? What do you care about? What needs to change in the world? What’s the best use of your time?
So I’ll turn this around on you, reader. Which of these many questions about life and meaning and everything would you prefer to answer? And — what would your answer be?