On the Meaning of Life

October 13, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Today’s passage from Jeremiah presents some advice to the community of that day for how to live a full life.  I imagine that there are countless books that have been written on the search for the meaning of life.  Great minds have pondered this question over the centuries, philosophers and theologians, cab drivers and waitresses.  At some point in all our lives, we wonder why we are here and what we should do with this life we have been given.  It seems to be at the core for many spiritual seekers, whatever the faith or religion one follows.  And, we are often prompted to reflect on such questions at special turning points in our lives, graduations and commencements, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one…and sometimes we are driven to the question by suffering or struggle in our own lives.  Let us pray, O God of mystery and awe, we invite your wisdom this day as we meditate on some of the important questions of life.  Be with us, guide us, and direct us to the path of wisdom and compassion.  Amen.

I believe I have shared that one my favorite books is Cry The Beloved Country which is about South Africa.  In it, one of central characters poses the question…“Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? …Wise men write many books, in words too hard to understand. But this, the purpose of our lives, the end of all our struggle, is beyond all human wisdom.”

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

“The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.”
W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and get up eight times.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

“The secret of life is not in what happens to you. It is in what you do with it that happens to you.” ― Norman Vincent Peale 5 Books for a Meaningful Life

We certainly can’t spend our lives preoccupied with this question, but every now and then, we pause and we reflect upon our own lives and that state of the world.  We consider what gifts we have shared, what satisfaction we have found in our living, and perhaps we explore deeper meanings as life unfolds.  When I was preparing to enter college many years ago, we received a summer reading list.  On that list was one of the great books of our time, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.  In the book, Frankl reflects…

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

As many of you probably know, Victor Frankl was a Holocaust Survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist, who lost his whole family during the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews. While a prisoner in  Auschwitz and other concentration camps, he developed something he called ‘logotherapy’ – his theory of ‘healing through meaning.’ During his time at the camps, Frankl noticed that it was the prisoners who had a purpose, a sense of meaning, and something to look forward to on the outside, that were most likely to survive. He argued that striving for meaning, not pleasure or power, is ultimately what keeps human beings going.

Reading Frankl’s book can help you see that the meaning you experience in life, or indeed the meaning you give to any situation, is ultimately your responsibility. You often can’t control what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond.

Over 2000 years ago, the Roman Philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, composed a piece titled “On The Shortness of Life” in which he  focused on the futility of a life of constant busyness.  He reflected,

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca argues that time is our most valuable resource, yet we squander it as if it were in unlimited supply.  He continued, ‘People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.’  It’s interesting to see how relevant Seneca’s words continue to be at this time. How many of us feel like there are just not enough hours in the day?  How do we spend our time? This is a great reminder that time is really a non-renewable resource, and how we use it ultimately determines the quality of our lives.

Another book that explores the question of happiness and its connection to the meaning of life is called The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.  He writes, “Happiness is not something you can find, acquire or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right, and then wait. Some of these conditions are within you; such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you. Just as plants need sun, water and good soil to thrive, people need love, work and a connection to something larger.”

In the ‘Happiness Hypothesis’,  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, explores the best ancient wisdom from the major religions and philosophies, and investigates happiness through the lens of modern science and psychological research.  One of Haidt’s key insights is that a meaningful life comes from what he calls ‘between.’  He says, ‘‘It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work and between yourself and something larger than yourself.’’

In other words, the amount of meaning you experience in life is directly related to the quality of your relationships in these three areas:

your relationship to your work, your relationships to the people in your life and your relationship to something larger than yourself which often includes nature, the universe, a higher purpose, God or the Creator.

His research led him to believe that a meaningful life is not something one can strive for directly, but emerges as a by-product of having these three key elements in place.

Another author explored the questions of meaning in life by speaking with those who were nearing the end of their lives and listening to the wisdom they wished to share.  In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the author Bronnie Ware reflects on this question through her experience as a nurse in Australia who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives.  In 2012,  she composed an article documenting the epiphanies of her patients just before they died, including their most common regrets.

Here’s what she found:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  • I wish I didn’t work so hard
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier

In its first year, her article was shared widely, read by more than three million people around the world; it was eventually developed and published as a book.  We know that it can be difficult to think far into the future and know what you will regret most at the end.  Her book provides an understanding of the most common regrets of the dying, which may allow us to gain deeper insight into what our own deepest regrets may be and more importantly, what we may wish to change while we can.

What is the meaning of life?  I imagine we all have a different answer to that question, but there do seem to be common themes which emerge throughout time.  If we embrace Victor Frankl’s view, that the amount of meaning we  experience in life is affected by how we view our lives, we may conclude that there are changes we can choose to make if we don’t feel our lives have the balance, the deeper meaning, or the joy that we seek.  We can listen to our own life experiences; we can learn from past regrets; we can use our time wisely; we can nurture the relationships which are most life giving for us; we can cultivate spiritual and religious practices which help us explore the depths of our souls.  There’s no simple path one can follow for a meaningful life. Each of us comes with our own unique set of circumstances and challenges and yet, we can choose some of the pieces that will allow us to live the best lives we have been given for the amount of time we have before us.

(Inspired by https://theweekenduniversity.com)