“The answer to the Great Question… of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought. “Is… forty-two.” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
I was watching a YouTube video on mental health, appreciating some very good, very practical advice, when the hostess said:
“Life is pointless. Life is meaningless. But that’s okay, because it means that you get to create your own meaning, your own reasons for being.” – A YouTube influencer
I was taken aback, I suppose. I don’t agree with any part of that statement. But I’ve been immersed in my own Christian beliefs for so long that I tend to forget that I’m an outlier, that many people would agree that life is meaningless. And it might be true that many more people simply prefer not to think about the question at all. Or, to quote Scarlett O’Hara, they might say: “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.”
Whether or not life has any innate point or meaning is a metaphysical question, which means it has no provable answer. To say that life either does or does not have meaning is a statement of faith, built on a faith-based mental and spiritual framework. To say that we have the power to create meaning in life is also a statement of faith – faith in our ability as humans to somehow transform ourselves and our immediate surroundings, our environment.
What do we mean when we talk about life having meaning or giving our lives meaning? I think we’re talking about something external to ourselves that is more significant and permanent than we are. My YouTuber talked about our lives being a tiny and insignificant blip in the universe. Perhaps we believe we will become significant if we join our blip to some greater cause, some more permanent “something” that will outlast us and live beyond us.
Which is why, I imagine, people often talk about children as giving meaning to their lives. What we invest in children somehow outlives us and, ideally, keeps returning something beneficial to the world down through future generations. Or, pouring ourselves into a just cause can produce societal changes that, once again, endure and produce positive change long after we’re gone.
Meaning, then, might have something to do with giving ourselves a longer life, in a sense. If we live and die and leave no fingerprints, our lives will have no meaning. But if we live and die and something we did or built or shaped lives on after us, we have lived a meaningful life. I think that’s probably a very common belief. It’s still a statement of faith. We can’t know what impact, if any, our lives might have after we’re gone. We can’t know if our fingerprints on the world will shape the future for good or for evil. Adolph Hitler’s parents surely had high hopes for their little son, as all parents do, but whatever meaning his birth gave to their lives didn’t work out so well for the rest of the world.
But I suppose there’s something to this idea that meaning involves something external to us, something bigger than us, something that outlives us. If I give a poor man a meal, my life becomes meaningful to him. If I help someone in distress, my life is not pointless from her perspective. Acts of love have meaning because they enrich the lives of others. Perhaps they even create meaning for ourselves. Which is why one of Jesus’ simplest and most powerful commands was “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” Tangible acts of generosity and justice and kindness and love lessen the weight of life’s burdens on the recipient, and perhaps such acts, even small ones, can change the course of a life in the same way that small drops of rain can cause a river to overflow its banks and take a new path through a valley.
But if life is meaningless, why make the effort to love? Why seek justice? Why be generous or kind? Perhaps only because we live and sleep in this place, so we want it to be tolerable. We would like to live in a society that values love, justice, kindness, and generosity. If life is intrinsically meaningless, doing something that we hope will create meaning is ultimately and blatantly self-serving. We hope our small, generous actions will somehow be reciprocated by others, and our short, meaningless lives will at least become more comfortable.
Maybe that’s too harsh. But it does seem to me that what’s needed is Someone external to humanity and life who can say, by fiat, yes, life is meaningful because I created you with a purpose. Then, our lives are not spent searching for meaning or performing small acts of kindness that we hope will make some sort of impact on the world, but our lives are spent supporting and affirming the purposes already etched into life by our Creator.
Such a belief depends on some sort of communication of intent, some sort of revelation from the Creator about his purposes. Which brings me to Jesus, whose life, many believe revealed God’s plans, God’s intentions, God’s motives, which center around a desire for a relationship with us that springs from God’s intense love for us.
Again, this is a framework built on faith. We either create meaning for ourselves out of the inventive creativity we were born with, or we look back in time for meaning in the life and words of a Jewish man who many called Messiah. I’ve chosen the latter.