A dear friend of mine about a year and a half ago sent me a writing prompt about the meaning of life as I was ‘taught’ it versus what I actually think the meaning of life is and how that applies to worth and humanity. It’s a great big question that’s depths could be plumbed (and have been plumbed) for eternity. But here’s a short, short version of what I think.
I honestly was never really ‘taught’ The Meaning of Life. I wasn’t ever really taught much at all beyond how to read, how to tie shoes, and how to do quadratic equations (which I’ve since forgotten, but I’m sure those lessons will snap right back when my kid hits higher math…I hope). I read things and heard speeches and lectures and absorbed societal norms and fictional tropes that implied The Meaning of Life (I guess). I’m still figuring it out for myself. I think most thinkers and people who engage in empathy as a regular practice never really settle into one life philosophy and stay there. It’s ever-evolving.
I’ve learned a couple of views that seem to be fairly common, but I don’t really buy into any of them, personally.
There’s the idea that if we follow a certain set of defined rules written by others (codified in religion or even a government constitution), we’ll be rewarded in another, later occurring, ethereal life, OR, we’ll just reap benefits in this one by believing ourselves ‘good’ because we adequately followed the rules and weren’t punished or maybe even like the smug satisfaction we get looking down our noses at rule breakers who are clearly ‘less than’ us.
And there’s the idea that there are no rules, so get as much as you can, and do as much as you can for yourself (buy things, acquire and hoard wealth, consolidate power) because that will prove you are ‘the best’ and therefore, your life has meaning.
And then there’s the ‘experience’ camp. Life is about having all the experiences you can rack up so you can check off a bucket list. Travel the world. Go skydiving. Get arrested. Make love on the beach. Eat escargot. Write a novel. Run a marathon. Whatever those things are, life’s meaning is in going to get those things.
But I think all of those ideas about The Meaning of Life are pretty self-involved, and I’ve never really been into any of that.
Sometimes, I think life is meaningless. Not in a negative, nihilistic way (but maybe in a positive nihilistic way? Haha!), but in a sort of, ‘Why does there need to be a defined Meaning of Life that applies to all humans?’ kind of way. The meaning of my life is likely different than the meaning of someone else’s. And I think that’s in alignment with the idea that we are all inherently born with equal worth. What I choose to focus my life on, or do with my life doesn’t make me more or less worthy than anyone else, and no one else should have to live up to my ideal (or anyone else’s) to be deemed worthy or successful. Personally, I seek to understand myself and other people as much as I possibly can, and to try to do the most good and least harm I can do as a fallible human, because I do believe in the principle that we are all born with equal worth. To me, the most meaningful parts of my life and the most meaningful things I’ve done are those that made and fostered connections with other people…I made someone laugh. I made someone feel less alone. I fulfilled a need for someone. I taught someone something.
I don’t think we should take someone else’s philosophy on what the meaning of life is, and then assign differing worth to other human beings based on whatever that is. I think I agree with Joseph Campbell…at least on this one point.