The Meaning of Life
A tiny answer to a massive question.
God could very well exist. However, the burden of proof is on the believers to produce and provide evidence of her presence. I am not one of those believers. It doesn’t define my life; I don’t think about religion much. I do, however, think about something religion thinks about quite often, which is What It All Means. I found it, curiously, in the slightly-above-average mainstream American comedy City Slickers. Really.
“You’ve got to find that one thing,” says cowboy Curly, played by Jack Palance — who was nominated for a fucking Oscar for that performance! — before riding off into the actual sunset. Billy Crystal asks, “What’s the one thing?”
So, what is the one thing? What is the meaning of life? I turn back to various cultural institutions and systems of rule, including religion: capitalism, feudalism, socialism, democracy, military, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, sports, communism, imperialism, on and on … We can debate the merits and validity of each of these until we’re blue in the face — but I keep coming back to the one overlapping idea that crops up in everything: Service.
Bob Dylan once sang, “Gotta serve somebody.” And although he was specifically talking about god (or the devil), there are plenty of other definitions for service, largely qualified by exactly whom you are serving. In capitalism, it’s the market. In feudalism, it’s the lord. In democracy, it’s the electorate. In the military, it’s your country. In religion, it’s god. In sports, it’s your team. But, distilled to its essence, life — and the ways in which we attempt to organize it — is largely about serving other people. Where we tend to disagree — liberals, conservatives, Buddhists, Christians, imperialists, liberators — is on the “how.” And the “how” is very important.
Remember that one thing? That’s the how. It’s your own tiny way of impacting the world through the service of others, your own behaviors which ripple across society. If I could lay a few ground rules down for how to serve, I would propose the following:
- When possible, err on the side of kindness.
- When possible, err on the side of empathy.
- When possible, err on the side of justice.
- When possible, err on the side of flexibility.
A society that does not openly encourage kindness, empathy, justice and flexibility is a rigid, intolerant one — one that forces servitude upon its people in the name of greater good, while creating miserable lives for most with the exceptions of a select, privileged few. There is a net-increase in suffering.
A person who does not openly embody kindness, empathy, justice or flexibility is a tyrant — an authoritarian who believes others should exist only in service of this select, privileged few or face punitive measures. There is, again, a net-increase in suffering. No matter where you live, you’re probably thinking of someone in particular right now.
You can easily ask yourself if a society, culture, institution, humanity itself or the individuals it’s comprised of serve properly by answering this simple question: Do the people (and the environment!) they touch suffer less today than they did before?
And, couched within that question, is the meaning of life. To ease the burden of suffering of others. That is humanity’s greatest challenge. We address this challenge through service. It’s how we connect, aid, empathize, love, raise a family, save lives, enrich lives, cure disease, cultivate, create and fight. We do it to ease the burden of suffering. To lessen it. To divide it. To, hopefully, vanquish it. All service, no matter the name nor the god it is performed in the name of, must be done with this north star in mind. The meaning of life is to serve others with the purpose of easing the burden of suffering. That’s it. That’s the one thing. Your one thing, well, that’s still something you gotta figure out for yourself.
I — and perhaps you, too — often wrestle with the question of what constitutes “enough?” Namely, enough as it pertains to “how much should I do to ease the suffering of others?” The obvious answer is “as much as you possibly can,” but then the follow-up question is, “how much is that?”
After mulling over, I think we can frame the answer thusly: For as long as there is suffering in the world — and there will always be suffering somewhere — the answer is “it will never be enough.” I think what we were all put here to do, rather, is to gravitate a little closer to what “enough” could be, as long as we recognize that we are all enough in our little way. We all die eventually, often alone and with little fanfare, but what we do within our brief period of time spent as living, breathing humans, will have some measure of impact. I think it is our mission — neigh, our duty — to ensure that impact is kind, empathetic, just and flexible to change, able to bend ever closer to where humanity finds itself tomorrow and long after we’re gone.
Our lives serve something greater, and whether you believe that’s a god, or a country, or a city, or a team, or a business, or whatever, remember this: When you strip all that away, we serve humanity and Earth as a whole. We are cogs in the great universal machine. Where we find our freedom is in the way in which we turn, and in the way we help others find freedom for themselves. That’s What It All Means. Well, it’s one thing it could all mean, anyway.