This is my fiftieth post on treatsandmore and I’m having a little celebration. It’s tempting to write about the problems of shopping for fish, cryptic crosswords, lucky knickers, eating in the dark, or other fripperies but I’ve done all of those, so today in honour of the occasion, I’m going to think about something quite different. Nothing too taxing, just that straightforward little question—what is the meaning of life?
Oddly, I’m not sure that I’ve given this matter much thought before. I’ve been aware of it, of course, but only tangentially, despite the fact that it affects us all. Without a purpose we’re merely existing and waiting for death. The ticklish problem lies in working out what that purpose might be.
If we weren’t blessed with free will, then it would be easy. We’d simply be like animals and get on with it. Penguins don’t worry about their purpose in life. They don’t have any option. The male stays with the egg in freezing conditions and the female trudges hundreds of miles across the ice to fetch food from the sea. But we’re different—we have choices, and with these comes anxiety about ‘what’s the right route’.
When we’re young then there’s a structure to life. Each year of education brings new challenges and we know more or less what’s coming next. Then suddenly it all comes to an end and we’re cast adrift in a sea of decisions with great crashing waves of doubt. I’ve spoken to several young people recently who have each in different ways expressed the same distress—what should they do with their life?
One of the most settled stages of my own life was when the children were young. Each day I knew what had to be done. Though that’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging at times. For many years, we lived several miles down a country lane and when we first moved we had just one car. My then-husband commuted to London by train and would often get back late. I couldn’t leave the children at home on their own so I’d have to take them with me to fetch him. I’d go round their bedrooms one by one and sit them up, telling them to put on their dressing gown and slippers whilst I went on to the next one. Invariably, I’d go back to gather each of them up, and instead of being ready they would have slipped sleepily back into bed so the rigmarole would start all over again. It was an odd game–a kind of cross between plate spinning and Sleeping Bunnies.
All of that is in the past now and that purposeful, day-to-day parenting space has melted away. Children leaving home, retirement, divorce, illness, bereavement—they all force us to search for a new equilibrium. If you’re religious then that may provide you with your ultimate meaning. But even if you believe in an afterlife then there remains the issue of how to spend one’s life profitably on Earth. And many of us are not religious so we need to construct our own purpose. Mine, over the past few years, has centred around wanting to learn new things and have new experiences. I certainly don’t always manage it, but I also want to be kind where I can. Thoughtfulness passes on like a relay baton from one person to the next and to my mind can only improve the overall quality of all our lives.
The meaning of life is one of those things that you start to notice everywhere once it’s in your head. The same day that I’d had a long, hard think about it, I went to see the film Jackie, and there it was right at the centre. The dazed, bereaved, ex-First Lady, Jackie Kennedy talks to a priest just a few days after her husband’s assassination. “What’s the meaning of it all?” she asks. The priest, played by the late John Hurt, replies, “It takes a long time to realise it, but the truth is that there are no answers. None.” That’s pretty much what I’d been thinking all day.
One approach that I do find useful is the philosophy of Viktor Frankl whose memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, is in development as a film. He was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years as an inmate in Nazi concentration camps. Despite his own hardships and the loss of his wife and most of his family, he encouraged fellow prisoners to fight for their survival by finding meaning in their suffering. Later, he developed logotherapy, a branch of existential analysis. At its core is the idea that to live is to suffer and if there is a purpose in life then there must be a purpose in suffering. But no one can tell another person what that purpose is. Our lives are all so different. We must each find out for ourselves and take responsibility for how this relates to our own life and situation. That is personal growth.
As I said at the start–nothing heavy.
And another thought…
It bothers me to know that when my heart stops beating and I close my eyes for the last time, then all the thoughts and memories that I’ve gathered through my life, will just disappear. Maybe this is one reason why humans have such a strong drive to be creative. Whether it’s a painting, a photo, a song, a patchwork quilt or a poem they can each outlast our own life so that a bit of us cheats death.
Maybe even a blog can do that. Thank you to everyone who has read any, or all of these fifty posts. I’ve really enjoyed writing them. And as I’ve probably got a few more thoughts and memories to gather together, then I intend to keep going. It’s a purpose–of sorts.