If you were to ask three hundred of the wisest people in history about the meaning of life, you’d think they would draw a crowd, but the only way to clear a room faster is by announcing the presence of a life insurance salesman. It’s sad.
(This is part one, introducing this series. Part two will introduce the attitude of meaning, and part three, the action of meaning.)
What is meaning, why do we need it, and how do we find it?
What is it?
There is a book published by Life magazine (number 674,699th on Amazon’s best seller list—a real room-clearer) aptly titled “The Meaning of Life”—its tag line offers some clarity on what meaning is: “Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here.”
The question is why; the topic is life—all of life. Why war, why peace, why laughter, why marriage, why hippos and aardvarks, why birds chirp and bees buzz—ultimately, why we are here. There’s a lot there.
So, meaning, simplified, is the answer to the question of why.
Why do we need it?
Without a clear vision of what is meaningful, we have no foundation to develop our life’s purpose, to test the value of our goals, to anchor our business.
Simon Sinek wrote a book entitled “Start with Why” (it’s 241 on Amazon’s list—much more popular). His premise is, unless you find your why (the meaning) in your business, you won’t have a chance of developing a distinct product and market.
So, meaning is foundational; that’s why we need it.
How do we find it?
Let’s look at some of the three-hundred responses in Life’s book.
Some are overtly religious—Willie Nelson references Matthew 5:48 and says the meaning of life is in our becoming perfect, like God. The Dalai Lama says we must achieve enlightenment. Desmond Tutu, that we are made in the image of God, and we have an obligation to live up to that potential—to build relationships and encourage harmony in the world. Maya Angelou: similar, referencing the Maker and His Grand Design that provides us that obligation. Billy Graham: our Creator put us here for a reason and He is the answer to the search for meaning.
Some are not overtly religious—George Lucas says for life to be meaningful, we should seek harmony with the world, but he believes the meaning of life is unknowable. Stephen Gould: no higher answer exists, we are the product of random chance, evolved into higher thinking creatures. John Updike: we should give praise to the beauty of creation and be overcome with gratitude occasionally. Rosa Parks: to do what we can to improve the world and enable all to enjoy freedom.
Whether religious or not, we have three options. Either meaning exists absolutely across the Universe, or meaning is something we create, or meaning is a figment of our imagination.
For the first, take Maya Angelou or Billy Graham; for the second, take the Dalai Lama or George Lucas or Rosa Parks; for the third, take Stephen Gould or John Paul Sartre, both of whom essentially say, “Let's pretend the universe has meaning.”
Now that does sound sad.
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