The meaning of life, part 2. A list.
This is the second of a two-part post on a meaningful life. The first post addresses the role of God in a meaningful life. This post is more eclectic, considering a range of activities that may make life meaningful given the limits we face and the needs we have. I write in this way because people so often talk about a meaningful life, and so seldom specify what that means.
I assume that we find meaning in activity, though there is no reason this must be the case. A contemplative or meditative life may be deeply meaningful, but whether it is an activity I’m not sure. In any case, it’s not included. I also assume that meaningful activities are difficult, just as chess is more meaningful than checkers, and checkers more meaningful than tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses). Meaningful activities need not be impossibly difficult, however, and some difficulties, like the work required in establishing and maintaining a good sex life with one’s partner, can be fun.
One of the activities listed below would not be enough to sustain a meaningful life over the years, and some activities change so much over the years they are hardly the same thing. Raising a child is different from the task of maintaining a loving relationship with the thirty-year-old child. Everything I’ve said needs qualification. Common-sense is required. Being an excellent chess player, for example, can spoil a meaningful life if one sacrifices too much for it.
I think that a serious relationship with God is an important part of a meaningful life, but it is not required. Atheists and agnostics may live meaningful lives, and the religious fail, particularly if religion becomes just ritual.
Good lives fail not only because we fail to pursue them properly, diligently, and within limits. They may fail because of events beyond our control. Aristotle thought that a good man could be made less fulfilled (eudaimon) by events beyond one’s control, but that a good man will never be completely miserable (N. Ethics 1100a34-1101a20). I’m not sure if that’s true. Certainly, it’s wrong in the short run.
Depression, or PTSD, make a meaningful life more difficult, but not always impossible. Many famous writers suffered from depression (just google “writers and depression”). But writing is not identical with a meaningful life.
Some activities that make life meaningful, not necessarily in this order.
- Worthwhile projects–that is sustained and difficult undertakings over a period of years. Child rearing. A career with interesting challenges and significant autonomy. Being a good partner in a marriage. Hobbies that require skill built over time. All these can’t be sustained at full intensity at the same time, but a meaningful life probably has more than one. All of these can be spoiled by events, such as a cared for child who turns into a moral monster, though that is rare. More common is dedication to a marriage that isn’t reciprocated.
- Loving and being loved. This includes passionate love, caring for a sick partner or friend, and the love that sustains and is sustained by everyday life. A life-long commitment to one person, a commitment lasting decades, is especially meaningful, but lesser commitments are not meaningless.
- Physical relationships, including cuddles, caresses, sex, but also sports, swimming, dance, and so forth. Almost any expression of the physical expresses our embeddedness in bodies. Experiencing the reality and freedom of our bodies is more important than many philosophers imagine. Physical experiences with ourselves (for example, swimming) and with others (for example, sex) are certainly different, but perhaps more similar than we imagine.
- Experiences of transcendence. Including music, nature, and religion. Many people feel more transported by music than by religion. Religion can become ritualized and routine more readily than music. Many churches, particularly African American ones, seem to have figured out the right combination. I hope this isn’t a stereotype. Being in a natural environment, and it need not be spectacular, is the height of transcendence for some. Paddling a canoe on a dark night under a million stars worked for me. The boundaries among water, sky, me, and the stars became indistinct. Scary but thrilling.
- Belonging to a community. Ideally the community pursues shared goals, the goals are worthwhile, and not entirely self-serving. Belonging to a group of bridge players is worthwhile, but not the same as belonging to a group that feeds the poor. A judgment about meaningfulness is implicit here: we find the deepest meaning in serving others. This is an empirical (evidence based) claim. That is, it could be wrong. Serving others could be entirely separate from meaning, but I don’t think so.
- Helping others. The risk is that the others we help will not be those in the greatest need, but people like us. For example, middle-class people often enjoy going to the symphony, and so they raise money for their symphony. A meaningful life requires an ability to empathize with the needs of people unlike ourselves. Often these are basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing. Empathize and do something about it.
- If I were to summarize all this in two phrases, they would be that a meaningful life consists of:
- Belonging without feeling trapped or imprisoned.
- An opportunity to live and act creatively, not just in the arts, but in everyday life.
- I invite you to add to this list, or even subtract from it.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics