That’s right, dear readers, this is the article wherein I reveal to you the results of my five-decade-plus-long quest to discover the Meaning of Life. (And no, it’s not 42. Sorry, Douglas Adams.)
It’s actually easier than you might think. In fact, it’s so straightforward that for starters I can go back to the quote I utilized in my high school valedictorian speech. With recognition and thanks to Ms. Sara Payne, my junior year British Lit teacher who guided those of us who spoke at that commencement ceremony, here’s the quote I based my speech on (and apologies for the non-inclusive gender language, that’s the way it was translated back then from the ancient Greek):
This is man’s highest end: To others’ service all his powers to lend.
– Sophocles, Oedipus the King
Really, that’s it. Life isn’t all about you. It’s about what you can do in the service of others. This may sound familiar:
[A]sk not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
– President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20. 1961
But wait, what about all those graduation addresses that tell young wide-eyed students to reach for the stars, to be all that they can be, to carpe that diem? Bullshit. At least as long as all that achieving and grasping and climbing and striving is only about oneself, I call bullshit.
You can accumulate all the “success’ in the world (as measured by standard societal norms) and still be unfulfilled. Why is that? Because we’re inherently social animals. We live to be in relation with one another. And yes, that applies to introverts as well – they just need smaller doses of interactivity. What we really long for is to be part of something greater than just ourselves. We find fulfillment in identifying with a cause greater than mere self-interest.
There are plenty of religious sources for this bit of wisdom. The best known in the Western Christian world is probably this Scripture passage:
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
– Jesus of Nazareth, John 15:13
The same dude also said this perplexing bit of wisdom:
All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.
– Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 16:25
What’s that? You have to lose your life to find it? You have to lay down your life to show love? You have to empty yourself in order to ultimately be fulfilled? Sounds like unhealthy self-deprecating nonsense. Where’s the part when Oprah gives me and you and everyone else a car? (Side note: Oprah does a lot of good stuff. Don’t get me wrong about Oprah.)
OK, still don’t believe me? How about an experiment? Try out this philosophy for a month. Go find something that’s outside of yourself, outside of your comfort zone, outside of your usual networks (unless your networks include a healthy service component), outside of your routine, outside of all the things you’ve built up around yourself to insulate yourself from the crap world we live in. Find a way to give back. And yeah, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely privileged relative to the rest of humanity throughout the world. And then come back to this post in a month, and let me know how things are going.
People are suffering out there. Physical, mental, emotional suffering is everywhere. It’s our job, as fellow human beings, to help alleviate suffering wherever we encounter it. And maybe part of our problem is that we’ve set up our lives to make sure we don’t encounter it any more than we absolutely have to. So let’s open ourselves up a little more. Let’s be just a little more vulnerable. Let’s actually seek out those places where there is suffering, and do what we can to mend the broken places. Be repairers of the world, tikkun olam and all that.
When you think of your heroes, I would venture a guess that you think of people whose lives were committed to service, to making this world and all of our existences better. One of my favorite quotes is from someone who did that, speaking of someone else who exemplified that. On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy (then a leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination), gave an impromptu speech to a mostly African American crowd in Indianapolis. It was intended to be a standard campaign speech, but earlier that day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and most of the assembled crowd did not yet know this news. RFK implored the audience to choose love over hate, forgiveness over violence, and coming together as a nation over breaking apart into disparate communities. For me, his touchstone line was this:
[L]et’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
– Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968, Indianapolis IN
I’ll be writing more about this soon – how we can recognize the sources of suffering, how we can help alleviate suffering, how we can repair the world, and how we can make gentle the life of this world. And I know I’m citing mostly Judeo-Christian sources here, but there will be more Buddhist-inspired ideas coming soon. Meanwhile, if any of my Muslim readers would like to add similar ideas from the Koran or the hadith literature, please feel free to comment below.