The meaning of life
By William C. Wilson
What is the meaning of life? Or what is the meaning of “What is the meaning of life?” And who has the time or interest to ponder such questions?
The truth is there are a lot of us out there interested in life’s purpose — as surely there must be more to it than our brief transit here on terra firma and our day-to-day pursuit of happiness. As I’ve been pondering this big question a great deal, I purchased a 36-lecture series from the Teaching Company on the big question itself: “The Meaning of Life.”
Professor Jay Garfield profiles classic teachers such as Confucius, Aristotle and the Buddha, as well more modern teachers — Gandhi, Lame Deer (Lakota Sioux) and the Dalai Lama. In between he discusses Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and many more. These giants were/are highly intelligent, and their thoughts are certainly provocative.
But for those of us in today’s world, their thinking seems to be from another planet. I do not know life from the perspective of a child in war-torn Syria or a malnourished Sudanese child without access to clean water — but I ask myself how those children could possibly care about Kant’s “rational autonomy or Nietzsche’s “authentic life?”
It seems to me that much of their thinking simply does not apply to a wide swath of humanity. I think of the people I know and know of and their lives seem beyond the scope of these thinkers. “What is life,” to my way of thinking, is about people and individuals interacting within a community … people growing and learning. Working and struggling. Maturing and aging.
The meaning of life must have something to do with the purpose of life — but what is the purpose? What struck me about this course was the lack of focus on four things that are part and parcel of everyday living: our everyday propensity to make a mess of things; hurting others or being hurt, and how hurts are to be resolved; helping others and being of service; and showing concern for others in your community. None of us live in a vacuum, and the solitary life is hardly a good choice.
It is for the reasons above that I embrace Christianity, which focuses on those very things: sin, forgiveness, servanthood and grace. The realities of Christianity fit the model of life’s real issues like a hand in a glove. And I can state unapologetically that Christianity has everything to do with the real meaning of life.
We live, and we sin. It’s everywhere, and we cannot avoid it. Sin is many things — start with the Ten Commandments and how often we break those. For an adult, our daily sins are so simple to avoid, yet we do them: We gossip, hurt others, show a lack of consideration for those in need, harbor unforgiveness — and it can all traced back to self-centeredness, which I believe is the root cause of sin.
I have no prescription for preventing sin. We live, and we sin. And to get more out of life, and for our lives to have more meaning, we need to understand how sinful behavior impinges on our real happiness and can rob us of the joy of living.
Christ teaches us to forgive others, as forgiving those who’ve wronged us puts more meaning and value into our lives. It has been said for centuries that holding a grudge is like poisoning yourself with a brew you yourself concocted. This can all be resolved if we confront a situation, bring out into the open air the offense and allow repentance and forgiveness to occur. We are forgiven by the Lord when we repent, and we must offer that same grace to others. Indeed, it is a prescription for a more meaningful life.
Serving others also adds more meaning to our lives. Jesus modeled this for us when He washed His disciples’ feet. Giving always feels better than receiving … and offering time, talent and treasure keeps us moving forward together and includes a wonderful way to soften our hearts and harden our feet.
Finally, grace (which Paul Zahl describes as “one-way love) is a performance-enhancing drug, if practiced. Grace is about caring, respecting, loving and doing for others. As the old saying goes, “Love makes the world go ’round,” and grace is the best way to keep that love moving. Grace in the Christian tradition teaches that “God loved us first.” If we can love others even before they love us back — or even if they don’t love us back — we are better serving both humanity and God.
My belief is that Christianity answers the question about the meaning of life and offers a free road map available to every person … which through God’s grace leads to life eternal.