I was honored by a request to join world leaders in answering the question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” I hope my response is useful. You can read other responses by visiting http://dld.bz/gNR4zI
The Words We Use
The words we use and questions we ask ourselves often shape our lives in ways that can be insightful or hurtful. What is the meaning of life is an example of the latter. This well-meaning question allows philosophers to speculate without evidence, religious people to maintain that unsubstantiated beliefs are facts, and tyrants to justify—in the name of some higher purpose—inhumane acts. The question is fraught with as much ambiguity as the question, “If a cabbage could think, want would it say and who would it marry”?
H.L. Menken wrote “We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.” While I wouldn’t go as far as Menken in degrading our knowledge—after all, how else would we know the world—I do believe that the question of what is the meaning of life comes close to being moonshine.
Consequences of Asking Questions That Make No Sense
After counseling people for more than twenty-five years, I’ve witnessed the torture caused by asking questions having no reasonable answers. Instead of asking what is the meaning of life (implying that there is something universal that is inherent in the answer), it makes more sense to ask how can I find meaning in my life: a question that is individualistic, pragmatic, and verifiable.
When that semantic change occurs, not only can we answer the question, but more importantly use the information to make our lives more fulfilling. Through our experiences—and not thoughts—we can assess if our life is meaningful. For example, How did I feel when I gave a disabled person on the subway a seat? How did I feel when my words caused unjustifiable pain to my partner? What did I experience when I played an original piece on my flute?
Individual, Not Universal Answers
For eight years I was as a hospice bedside volunteer. I witnessed struggles and insights as people approached the end of their lives. Never during that time did someone ask “what is the meaning of life.” What I heard repeatedly was “did I make a difference?” There was no universality in the answers. Instead, the answers always involved past behaviors—those that they were proud of and unskillful ones.
Weeks before her death, a woman expressed an interest in Buddhism after hearing I was a Buddhist. When I offered to have a monk counsel her, she vehemently objected. “I don’t want to hear dogma. I want to know how Buddhist beliefs made a difference in your life.” What followed was a discussion that I think was more important to me than to my patient. It required me to identify events that made my life meaningful. The answers were unique to me; a husband, father, professor, therapist, musician, sculptor, and person living with cancer.
What gives my life meaning is different from what gives life meaning to other people. To believe it should be the same for everyone is presumptuous. There’s an old story about a forgetful monk who at the end of the day couldn’t remember if he did anything that would be considered righteous. His mentor suggested he carry two bags of pebbles: one filled with white stones and one with black stones. Each time he did an act he was to determine its value, take out the corresponding stone and place it in a third bag. At the end of the day, he was told to count the number of white and black stones. If there were more whites than blacks—it was a righteous day. If not, he knew his behaviors needed changing.
The moral of this story is that the search for the meaning of life is not fruitful. Rather, instead of searching for a universal answer, seek out what is important to YOU. That becomes the meaning of YOUR life that may or may not apply to anyone else. The philosopher Krishnamurti wrote that the answer to a question can be found within the question. I would add that if the question is flawed, so will the answer.
~Stan Goldberg, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University and the author of seven nonfiction books (printed in four languages, all available on Amazon). His latest book, Loving, Supporting, and Caring for the Cancer Patient: A Guide to Communication, Compassion, and Courage was published as a hardback in 2016 and as a paperback in 2017. His books and articles were the recipients of twenty-two national and international awards, including the 2009 London Book festival Grand Prize winner for his memoir as a hospice volunteer. He has contributed chapters to six books and was honored when an essay he wrote was selected as the lead chapter in the Best Buddhist Writings of 2010. He has been interviewed and/or published in The New York Times, the BBC, USA Today, Women’s Health, and Psychology Today, among others. His website stangoldbergwriter.com contains more than 200 articles on Alzheimer’s/dementia, cancer, caregiving, chronic illness, end of life, grief and life.
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