I was casting about for things to think and write about; for ideas not my own, and asked if anyone in any of my circles of people had questions, about anything. Not that I have answers. But questions are a good place for a curious mind to start.
It is now a week later, and there are now a good many questions in the queue. They are all stewing. (Recipe in a subsequent post, I promise.)
To figure out the order in which to write and post them, I chose the most logical, rational and statistically random approach I could devise: I wrote the suggested topics out on slips of paper that were in equal shape and size; folded them to be of equal shape and size albeit smaller, put them in a huge jar I just happen to have lying around — well alright, I dumped all of the coins on the floor first — then shook the jar upside down, lid affixed of course, for precisely one minute so that the evenly folded slips of paper would be scrambled randomly. I then unscrewed the lid, reached in, pulled out a slip of paper, unfolded it and read this: A question I’ve been wondering for a long time is: What is the meaning of life?”
How random is that, exactly?!?
I sighed. There are only 38,000,000 results when you key the term Meaning of Life into Google search. There are image results, video results, music results and of course, websites, blogs, papers, presentations, poems, and quotes.
As I pondered the words on the slip of paper from a pure Q + A perspective, I wondered more about the question. Is it the meaning of life or the meaning of A life: yours, mine, whoever the questioner happens to be? Maybe both.
Time to get practical.
On the plus side, it has to be good to know that you are wondering what millions of other people have wondered. In fact, the question is so pervasive that it has its own entry in Wikipedia: “The meaning of life constitutes a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of human existence or biological life in general. This concept is expressed through a variety of related questions, such as Why are we here?, What’s life all about? and What is the meaning of it all?
It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. The meaning of life is deeply mixed with the philosophical and religious conceptions of existence, consciousness, and happiness, and touches on many other issues, such as symbolic meaning, ontology, value, purpose, ethics, good and evil, free will, conceptions of God, the existence of God, the soul, and the afterlife. Scientific contributions are more indirect; by describing the empirical facts about the universe, science provides some context and sets parameters for conversations on related topics. An alternative, human-centric, and not a cosmic/religious approach is the question “What is the meaning of my life?”
There is a lot that you can read and hunt down on the web about the meaning of life, and it is good to see what other people say. And there is no shortage of answers, ranging from religious, spiritual, philosophical through to comedic and downright rude.
On the less-than-positive side, there is no one-size-fits-all T-shirt kind of answer that you can just pull over your head and fit perfectly to your body. The answer, if you have one, can change over time as you change. As your life changes. As you (hopefully) mature, learn from your experiences, look at the same sky with different eyes. Or different skies with new eyes. Or beginner mind. Or as your definitions deepen. If you follow the path that your meaning is to have a happy life, your life and how happy it is at 16 is different than the happiness of 21, 28, 35, 40, 60 or 90. If the meaning is happiness. I have long been suspect of happiness as the meaning of life. My father once said that there is no such thing as a happy life or a sad one. Just happy and sad moments throughout a life.
There is a school of thought that suggests it is not happiness we seek, but contentment. Also momentary. However, those moments can be connected, tracing a path, creating a map to your ever present now.
Much is said about forging meaning from giving, of being of service to the broader community. Contributing to the world in some way. Contributions can range from giving a hug to someone you know can use it, listening to someone, giving in some way, right up to major philanthropic works and everything in between. Helping out, caretaking. Yes, caretaking. For some reason, caretaking has been deeply pathologized and politicized — sadly. Some people do need to make a difference in the world, and their life’s meaning is derived from pursuing that goal.
On the lighter side, It is NOT possible to talk about the meaning of life without Douglas Adams and his Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series; sidebar to Wikipedia, again:
In the first novel and radio series, a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings demand to learn the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everythingfrom the supercomputer, Deep Thought, specially built for this purpose. It takes Deep Thought 7½ million years to compute and check the answer, which turns out to be 42.Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.
When asked to produce The Ultimate Question, the computer says that it cannot; however, it can help to design an even more powerful computer (the Earth), that can. The programmers then embark on a further ten-million-year program to discover The Ultimate Question. This new computer will incorporate living beings in the “computational matrix“, with the pan-dimensional creators assuming the form of mice. The process is hindered after eight million years by the unexpected arrival on Earth of the Golgafrinchans and then is ruined completely, five minutes before completion, when the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new Hyperspace Bypass. This is later revealed to have been a ruse: the Vogons had been hired to destroy the Earth by a consortium of psychiatrists, led by Gag Halfrunt, who feared for the loss of their careers when the meaning of life became known.
Lacking a real question, the mice decide not to go through the whole thing again and settle for the out-of-thin-air suggestion “How many roads must a man walk down?” from Bob Dylan‘s protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind“.
At the end of the first radio series (and television series, as well as The Restaurant at the End of the Universe book) Arthur Dent, having escaped the Earth’s destruction, potentially has some of the computational matrix in his brain. He attempts to discover The Ultimate Question by extracting it from his brainwave patterns, as abusively  suggested by Marvin the Paranoid Android, when a Scrabble-playing caveman spells outforty two. Arthur pulls random letters from a bag, but only gets the sentence “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”
|“||“Six by nine. Forty two.”
“That’s it. That’s all there is.”
“I always thought something was fundamentally wrong with the universe”
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Prak, a man who knows all that is true, confirms that 42 is indeed The Ultimate Answer, and confirms that it is impossible for both The Ultimate Answer and The Ultimate Question to be known about in the same universe (compare the uncertainty principle) as they will cancel each other out and take the Universe with them to be replaced by something even more bizarre (as described in the first theory) and that it may have already happened.
Monty Python’s film, The Meaning of Life, had this to say about living a happy life and finding meaning in it: “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
But mostly, the meaning of life fseems to be to love and be loved. How many loves, you ask? I don’t think the song by Naomi How Many Loves, actually posits an answer, but it does suggest don’t dawdle. (Cue Music, Cue Singer)
“Tell me how many times how many times how many times
Can you fall in love?
And how many loves how many loves how many loves, Make a life?
The girl behind the counter made his heart throb
He paid and got his change and turned to go
Thinks, he’ll ask her out tomorrow
But tomorrow she’ll be gone
It will take three weeks till he won’t dream about her anymore
Thinking how many times how many times how many times
Can you fall in love?
And how many loves how many loves how many loves
Make a life?”
I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars, and planets, has a deeper meaning, but at the very least it is clear that we humans who live on this Earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves.
Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual and political leader, Voices from the Heart
You see, any human being is originally, he may forget it, or repress this, but originally he is a being reaching out for meanings to be fulfilled or persons to be loved.” from Viktor Frankl at Ninety: An Interview at Ninety.