According to popular intelligence, “the meaning of life” remains an unapproachable mystery. Yet it poses a question of such fundamental importance that it cannot be ignored. The Monty Python players, in their movie, “The Meaning of Life,” did not ignore it, but turned the whole issue into a burlesque, which pleased the cynics who believe that there is no real answer to this enduring question.
The late Marlon Brando once remarked that when it comes time to take his last breath, he will say to himself, “What was that all about?” Is life just a series of disconnected and transitory events that is ultimately meaningless? Is it presumptuous even to explore whether life might hold some overriding meaning?
Philosophers have always been willing to tackle questions of fundamental human importance. Though philosophy is not exactly enjoying its heyday at the present time, philosophers continue to ponder the meaning of life. Here, it is not a question of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, but of philosophy’s grasping a fundamental feature of human experience and expressing it in ordinary language.
Let us commence our pondering by drawing attention to a common greeting that transpires when two people meet each other: “How are you? How’s life treating you?” Philosophically, these words imply a distinction between your being and your life. Upon further reflection, we realize that your being is in some sense prior to your life and that as soon as you begin to experience life, your being is somehow in jeopardy. Your being is like a small craft set in a stormy sea. You are, it appears, imperiled by your life.
People readily understand this, and the question, “How’s life treating you?” implies that your life is distinct from your being, and that it endangers your life from the start. It also implies that you have a duty to safeguard your being that is constantly challenged by the vicissitudes of life. We express concern to each other about how we are holding up under life’s continued assaults.
Here is a key to understanding the meaning of life. Its vexing purpose is most often raised when life seems to be treating us badly. In such instances, life appears to be hostile to our being, to the “I” that is subject to its apparent whims. “What meaning can life possibly have?” we ask, when it seems so contrary to our preferences. We are buffeted by life and wonder how so negative a force can have any meaning. At the same time, the deeper our experience of an absence of meaning – which is despair – the more energetically we try to find it.
The lyric poet John Keats, in a famous letter he penned two years before he died, drew a distinction between a “mere intelligence” and a truly personalized “soul.” “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” We inhabit a world of “soul-making” where “the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways.” We know that it takes a great deal of pressure to produce a diamond. Perhaps, in a similar vein, personality is formed in an existential crucible of meaningful stress.
The character we cultivate in responding to the difficulties that life sends our way is inseparable from the formation of our distinct identities as human beings. We need the obstacles of life in order to preserve, purify, promote and perfect our personalities. Consequently, life, including its train of disagreeable factors, has meaning because it offers us the opportunity to become authentic, fully personalized human beings. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was actually expressing a great deal of love for his Jesuit priests when he prayed that they would always be persecuted. He did not form a religious community for the purpose of making his disciples comfortable, complacent and, consequently, ineffectual. We respond with courage and hope to the difficulties that life sends us and, lo and behold, discover that they have helped humanize us.
For the Zen master, “the obstacle is the path.” For the Christian, the Cross is the Way.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario; an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell; and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.