Saturday, October 12, 2002

The Meaning of Life

The meaning of life is simple. But we can't see it so easily and it's hard to articulate it. It comes to the fore in sorrow: something unfathomably valuable, the loss of which is unbearably sorrowful. Sorrow is so deeply negative because it's not merely negative. It brings us face to face with what is of deepest value and completely fulfilling. That our hold on this fulfillment is fragile and impermanent is sorrowful just because the fulfillment is so profound. "Sorrow" here is more than just any "sorry that...." You can be sorry that you failed in some respect or that you didn't take some trivial option, such as buying a house instead of renting an apartment. But the sorrow that gets at the meaning of life is a different kind of sorrow. Call this sorrow "melancholy". The only good thing about the bombing of September 11 is that it gave anyone who was open to the prospect a chance to grasp the meaning of life in the most complete and profound melancholy. And yet it slips away, this most important of messages.

The message is one of Common Sense & Wonder. It is twofold.

The meaning of life is the fulfillment of ordinary aspirations, ordinary values, ways of life discovered over the ages and passed down from generation to generation, with refinements made along the way. There are many such traditional roles for a person to take up: the scientist, the mother, the artist, the businessman, the father, the athlete, the poet, the teacher, the friend, the soldier, the cousin, etc. These roles include individual endeavors and relationships with others. The roles are complicated, and meaning and fulfillment are to be found in mastering the complications, in taking up your roles fully and completely. It's not acting; a particular combinations of roles is you. It leaves room for your individual expression, too. You may put things together in a way that expresses your own desires, talents, and feelings.

That's it. That's the lion's share of the meaning of life. You might not believe me. But imagine getting the call that a loved one has died in a terrible, sudden accident. Or imagine being told by your doctor that you yourself have only two weeks to live. Or imagine being 72 and being so fortunate as to have pulled it all off with uncommon virtuosity and luck: the career, the family, the development of talents, the maintanance of good friends, etc., etc., and finally being able to hold your beloved son's baby daughter in your arms. Or recall confronting the destruction of 3,000 Americans attempting to achieve this goal, a destruction undertaken by people representing the envy, hatred, and delerious despair of millions upon millions of others unable in their wildest dreams to achieve this goal by dint of the fact that their values are not the legacy of a long tradition of successful discoveries of ways to achieve fulfillment and meaning, but are rather the awful result of a lengthy human failure to find these ways. Looking into these chasms of despair, bottomless and desolate as they are, we can, with one tiny adjustment of view, so inoften made, come to confront the depths of meaning that make that despair what it is. This argument is not a cheap appeal to your emotions. Imagining catastrophe is precisely what shows you what you value most of all, what you will take as more than enough: the ordinary, run-of-the-mill fulfillments that common sense suggests to us. The meaning of life is to do what common sense has us do.

If it's so common and mundane, how can it be so profound? Herein lies doubt, and from here one carries on, all the while living a meaningful life but ever in a state of mild confusion about "what's it all about?" Or, even worse, one doubts common sense, turning away to darker endeavors in a vain effort to ease the resultant boredom. The failure to learn how to determine appropriate aspirations for oneself and how to find pleasure in fulfilling them leads to this frustrated malaise in which the common-sense values are blamed, scoffed at, held up as a meaningless charade. In failure, one will decry the standard as a fraud. Even in our own culture, the envy, hatred and despair of meaningless lives may be found. All this is a result of never having been shown (or, having been shown, lacking the common sense to see) the way to find profoundly fulfilling pleasures in ordinary life.

The second component of the meaning of life: that merely to exist is of profound value. The fact that there is something, rather than nothing, is a fact utterly worthwhile and gratifying and yet impossible to explain. It's just this: to exist. All ordinary values and mundane endeavors aside, there is still this. Death brings melancholy not only because of the devastation it wreaks upon our ordinary aspirations, but also because it cancels our continuing to be conscious participants in the continuing existence of this world.

Death delivers the meaninglessness of it all? Hardly. It can reap only because we flourish. It can seem to threaten with meaninglessness only because we are in possession of great meaning. Sorrow in the face of death shows us our own victory over the final and certain claim this grim reaper has on us. Its toll is terrible only because we have already won.