With the passing this week of such significant figures as Joan Kirner and Alan Bond—very different in the their contributions and example to us—it is interesting to consider how we actually respond to other people’s lives and our own, and how we make an estimation or evaluation of their lives. What is a life worth, in the sense of what makes it meaningful and worthwhile, or even worthy of honour and congratulation?
To ask for the ‘meaning’ of life might well be thought to be a modern ailment, the kind of angst that indicates we have the time to sit back and contemplate our navels, as the saying goes. Others, in more difficult situations or in times gone by perhaps do not engage in this kind of questioning. I don’t think that’s true. The writer of Psalm 8 and the thinker who wrote Ecclesiastes both asked such questions. What is a human person and what things are worthwhile, for all our struggles and labours under the sun?
Recently I have been reminded several times of the lines of the nineteenth century philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)—lines made famous to a different audience through the film Dead Poets Society:
I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,
And I wanted to live deeply and such out all the marrow from life,
To put to rout all that was not life,
And not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.
That last idea is such a significant one, I think: the idea that we can live a long time but come to the end and find, or feel, that we have not lived. It stands behind another of Thoreau’s great lines: ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’
More and more I have come to think that this really is true of many men—by which I mean male adults. They (no, we) are not violent in our desperation, but there is a deep angst about what it is all about and whether in fact all our work, efforts in relating and giving and building and trying to live are actually worth anything. I do not mean that this is a male-only issue, at all: but I do mean to suggest that males find it so hard to acknowledge and that’s perhaps the source of the ‘quiet desperation’.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an immensely valuable book somewhere around his 50th year, called When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. The subtitle is: The search for a life that matters.
Early in the book Kushner tells the short story of a man who came to see him, traumatised by the sudden death of a man from his office: He did not know the fellow well, but he was of the same age, had died just a week ago, and was already replaced at the office. His family is moving interstate, and so (the grieving man said) there will be no trace of him at all. Stunned, he has been sleepless, wondering whether any of our lives actually count for anything. Kushner’s book addresses the same ideas Thoreau sets out: late in the book he says, ‘it’s not dying that people are afraid of … We are afraid of never having lived.’ (p156).
I’d like to make a few tentative suggestions about the meaning and worth of life.
The question of ‘meaning’ or worth can be approached from several stand-points. What I am saying here is a common distinction, set forth (for example) by Plato in The Republic, rather a long time ago!:—we can see the meaning of something determined by a purpose, established by a cause or creator. This is seen very simply in something like an spoon or a pen. It has a function, determined by the designer or maker. We might think of the meaning of life in that way: all life, or each life, has a purpose and function, and part of our responsibility is to find that or, if we think it is already evident, to fulfil that purpose or function.
Another possible way to think of meaning or value does not start with a pre-existing cause or intention, but rather looks to the results or outcome. We might say that a life has meaning in accordance with what it achieves. We apply this kind of thinking in many situations. We ask what’s the use of something, by which we mean does it achieve anything or produce any worthwhile results. (Interestingly, this view was put forward by Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics.)
What’s the meaning of life? Does it come from its origin or its end? Does it come from something inherent, within, or something beyond and without? Does it come from the source or intention of all life, or is it specific to each life, and thus dependent on each person’s actions, the outcome of their living?
I’d like to say there is much of value in all of these ways of thinking, and there is much that is misleading and dangerous as well. Take for example the idea of ‘function’ as a source of meaning. All too easily this can be taken to mean that human life is about production: whether it is producing things, or various kinds of actions: and that can mean then that some lives are more meaningful and more worthwhile because they are more ‘productive’, while other lives are worth less, or even worthless. That would mean perhaps that a very frail or severely disabled person is considered worthless. That’s the reductio ad absurdum of this line of reasoning: it ends in absurdity. Clearly something has gone wrong there.
Similarly, there is great value in the idea that each of us is created for a purpose and indeed that all life has a purpose. But that idea, too, can be pushed to a point where it means that we have no choice about what we do with our lives, or if we have not found or have not fulfilled that purpose or intention we are somehow ‘all wrong’. Again, a good idea can become a source of oppression and used to life-defeating purposes.
I’d like to take a different line, which I hope in fact will retain some of the best of these other ideas, yet allow more freedom and affirmation along the way. It’s an idea I first formulated long ago, when I was struggling with acute existential anxiety, at 20 years of age. I was facing the crisis of conscription to the army, to go to Vietnam—which I knew I would not do. I was also just then exactly the same age as my brother John was when he died in shooting accident. The grief and depression of that time was flooding over me again. I knew I would not take up a gun to kill anyone. I was studying philosophy, including existentialism, so all this was both deeply personal and the substance of my academic life as well ( a very potent and indeed dangerous mix!).
I decided then, and affirm now, that the meaning of life is living: Living, one day at a time, day by day. That is it: it’s not 42. It’s not anything ‘outside’ who or what we are: it is inherent in who and what we are. It is the joy and gift, as well as the long littleness (Auden’s phrase) of living.
I believe this is what the Bible offers to us too, as the vision and meaning of the life in which we find ourselves. We do not choose it: it comes before us. We are in it, up to our eyeballs!
Genesis chapter 1 tells us that inherently to be is to belong. In the creation hymn we find there, humans are placed by God in a world that exists for us, and is given to us: though not only for us. We are in it with all God’s creatures. We belong. We belong with this world. It is not ours. It provides for us, all we need: water and land, animals and plants. But it is not all for us. It is God’s and we are with it and with God. We live, as an old credal statement puts it ‘before God’ or ‘in the presence of God’. Living is inherently living with, being-in-relationship.
It is this about us which is like God, or as Genesis puts it ‘in the image and likeness of God’. The nature of God is to call forth relationship: God creates a world, so that it lives and operates as an extraordinarily complex and beautiful system of systems of life. It’s an ecology. It’s a world of life together, as God is a life-together, a community. That’s what the doctrine of God as ‘trinity’ is about. And so too our lives are life-together.
We live: as gift and gifted. We have been given this life and we are a gift to each other, to live and receive. Life is about living, belonging, giving and receiving, and being grateful
In short, life is about living and living is about loving. The giver of all life is love. We learn this from our mothers, the life-giver who loved us into this world and provided for us long before we had any idea of what that meant. And in this respect God is our mother, the mother of all life, the giver of life, who allows us to take from her and to go our own ways, but never to be without that mother-love, even though it might cause her (God) pain and anguish that we have moved away or done something less than worthy of the life we have been given.
That brings me to acknowledge, too, that saying the meaning of life is living is not meant to be an ‘easy’ statement. Living is not all sweetness and light, or as Scott Peck has put it: Life is difficult!
In living, there are many disappointments. Only a very small number of people fulfil their deepest dreams. Most of us have to revise them along the way and come to terms with what is possible, or with what happens. Living means disappointment, and often failure. That’s part of the meaning of being alive. Often that’s when we are most alive, and have to come to terms with who we really are and what we really think is worthwhile. It might mean trying again, or trying differently, or trying something else more appropriate.
Another thing: the meaning of life is affirmation: sometimes from others, sometimes from that deep and assuring inner presence which is God’s spirit warming our own spirit. But inherently, life affirms life.
Living that is not about getting something, or following a plan or purpose as if it is required of us, but simply living, affirming the value of living for its own sake. This is the kind of life that is deeply meaningful, ‘full stop’.
And it is this kind of living that embraces death as a part of living: we die to live, as the apostle Paul put it. We die to a kind of life that is self-centred and self-justifying and self-preoccupied (even if it is preoccupied with being good or being righteous): Paul said he had to let all that go, die to in, in order to live. ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Phil. 1. 21). This is not a life-denying stance, saying that life is worthless: ‘hey, let me die’.
No, what it means is that ‘faith’ is a stance in life where we affirm the sheer gift of life, from God, and make no other pretence. Christ is the gift of God’s love and life, without conditions. This stance reflects and reminds us that what was true from the beginnings (Genesis) is forever true: we do not earn life; we do not create ourselves; we do not own the world. We belong in the land of the living: with each other, with the world, with God. Life is gift.
The meaning of life is to love life: to live. May it be so, all our days.