We’re all familiar with the question – What is the meaning of life? Well, I’m here to tell you the answer. Of sorts. I have no qualification to be able to take on such a task except that I am a living being. Maybe that’s all the qualification anyone needs to answer this, the biggest question of all.
As you might imagine, the answer to such a weighty inquiry – an inquiry that has foxed many a philosopher – isn’t short. It’s certainly not a two-digit number whose square root is slightly over 6.48, and neither is it a comedy movie about a messiah, (Yeah, let’s get the horrible pop culture references out of the way so we can focus on the real issue…) but it’s not a long-winded answer, either. I’m going to cover it for you in a few hundred words. And when you see it laid out, you’ll realise how brilliantly simple the answer is.
Let’s start with the notion of the question itself. Why do we even ask What is the meaning of life? Does an ant ask that question when it’s part of a foraging team? What about a pigeon? Or a coconut, or ivy, or a daffodil? They’re living things just like us, but while, at a stretch, you might be able to argue that an ant or a pigeon has some self-awareness which might lead to asking such questions, it would hardly be the same thing as when we humans, with all our diverse culture, sciences, our probing of the universe at both the macroscopic and subatomic levels, and our philosophy, mean when we invoke the terms. I’ve seen animals larger than ants or pigeons; dogs, apes, elephants, lions, polar bears, who have given all the appearances of being bored, or angry or depressed; complex mental states. But do they really contemplate life, the universe and everything in the way that we humans can; we humans who have developed intricate linguistic structures to express even more convoluted thoughts; from how the universe was formed, to decoding DNA, to exploring the possibility of the existence of god?
There seems to be something unique about the ability to even pose the question what is the meaning of life? And it is there the clue lies. The fact that we can even consider the meaning of life; that we can believe it is an important question, is a signpost to what that meaning may be.
Imagine asking someone what pisses them off. If you’re in a light-hearted conversation when you pose that question, then you might get a suitably light-hearted answer; When someone squeezes the toothpaste tube at the middle, maybe, or When my phone runs out of charge, and so on. In a more weighty conversation, you might get answers that carry more gravity; War, or Human suffering for example. And of course a whole range of issues between and beyond those examples. Things that piss us off – or to put it another way, issues that gives us cause for concern are, I would suggest, closely related to the tendency we have to ask questions about the meaning of life. Most of the time, most people seem to enjoy the good things that happen to them without too much questioning (unless, of course, you’re a philosopher trained to think about such things, or someone who just happens to be in a philosophical mood – which is not the same thing as being a philosopher, by the way). But when bad things happen; things that piss us off or give cause for concern, there is a tendency to ask why. A need to look for answers, blame or causality. In other words, to look for meaning. That’s not to say people never ask questions about the good things that happen; just that it is often a more keenly experienced process when something bad has happened. The old phrase Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth reflects quite nicely the tendency we have to just accept the good things without too much question.
The tendency to look for answers for the bad things that happen in life is ingrained throughout human culture. As Ursula Le Guin once famously said, ‘There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories’, and as any storywriter will tell you, a story is nothing without conflict or adversity. In fact, anyone familiar with the mythic roots of classically formed stories will know that the conflict in a story reaches a peak when the hero has to overcome a symbolic death, and you can’t get more conflict and adversity than that.
It doesn’t just apply to heroic tales though. Story telling is a fundamental part of the fabric of human culture. Take gossip, for example. Most people enjoy or take part in small talk about other people at some time. And it often is formed from a truncated kind of story telling; for example:
‘Say, did you hear about Steve? He’s a total wreck! Amy dumped him.’
‘Oh my god, really? He’s such a nice guy!’
‘Yeah, but I’ve heard he had a drink problem, and when he had a drink he also had a problem with the ladies…’
‘Oh, well he totally deserves it, then.’
We’ve all heard that kind of gossip, and look how it’s shaped; almost like a Shakespearean tragedy – Good Guy Steve with his fatal flaw, and justice is served.
Small talk. Small issues about the small things going on in life. Our lives are actually made up of countless small things. Sometimes these things make us happy, sometimes they piss us off. And while we may spend some of our time contemplating weighty issues such as war and human suffering, most of our lives are taken up with the mundane. Like Why has he squeezed the goddam toothpaste tube in the middle again? and Why the hell can’t I get a smartphone with a battery that will last all day?
Sometimes, when you get pissed off with something small in life, a wise person might tell you something like Get over it, or Why should you be upset because your football team lost a game when there are kids starving in Africa? Well, no one is saying the Africa situation isn’t important… or any of the many other huge problems facing our planet. But can we really live our lives like that – not caring about any of the small things, just focusing on the huge injustices and problems in life? Of course we can’t. It’s the constant flow of the small things that make up our lives: Watching a trashy soap on TV; realising the fuel tank is almost on empty just as you join the motorway; watching ducklings bobbing around a pond; getting halfway through a good book and then finding a page is missing; opening a birthday present; realising you’ve forgotten your wedding anniversary… None of these types of things change the world in any significant way, but they change us in incremental, almost unnoticeable, ways daily. All of us do different things in our lives, and sometimes we are passionate about them. A scientist at CERN might be passionate about finding barely existent particles that make up the structure of the universe. Joe at the end of our road might be passionate about walking his Labrador, Cocoa, in the park. The types of things they do might be very different, but both of them will make an impact. Our scientist might impact on the physics history books. Joe will certainly impact on the life of Cocoa. Both people, however, will throughout their lives experience love, joy, rejection, regret and grief. These experiences are what makes us human, however insignificant the causes might seem to others. If you feel overjoyed because your favourite smartphone brand has just announced a battery that lasts a week, that’s okay. If you regret not taking the degree in physics, that’s also okay. If the only person you love in life is your Labrador, that’s okay. If you’re grieving for someone, that’s okay. Trying to stop yourself feeling such things, or trying to downplay their importance to you will not solve a famine in Africa, or help you find a theory that combines quantum and classical physics seamlessly. In fact, the little things that make up our lives are what give us the context to be able to frame the bigger questions. How would we know that the meaning of life is a big question if we weren’t able to measure it against who is dating who in the office?
If you’ve followed me this far, you can probably guess where I’m heading now. The normal day to day events in our life are exactly what gives our lives meaning; they are the fabric of which our lives are constructed, and so allow us the consider the big issues. In other words, the question What is the meaning of life? Is circular; self-referential: While exploring the big ideas, allow yourself, without guilt, to enjoy – or get annoyed with – the small things.
The meaning of life is simply to live.
© Darren R. Scothern 2016