“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The year is 2078, and I am in a haze of morphine, barely conscious. In the next few hours, my brain activity will cease and my heart will stop—I will die.
When I imagine my own death, it puts my life in perspective. Most of what I do and think about—including some of my writing here—becomes unimportant. The best music for a summer bbq? My experience in a sensory deprivation float tank? Worrying about taxes or stressing about buying a home? Dumb and pointless (well, the summer bbq music list is kind of important).
While the reality of mortality helps me dismiss the more frivolous aspects of my life, it also brings that which is important into clearer focus.
Many would have us believe that the pursuit of happiness is paramount. But I’ve come to think this approach is incomplete at best, and completely wrong at worst. As my children grow, my parents wrinkle, and I approach the big 4-0, I contemplate the big questions more and more, and no question is bigger than “What is the meaning of life?”
Of course, there is no “right” or universal answer, but here are a few candidates I’m considering at the moment.
The Buddha infamously said that life is suffering. What he meant by this simple phrase is not so straightforward, but real suffering nonetheless permeates our world. Whether it is the physical anguish of starvation or psychological anguish of depression, the amount of suffering in this world is endless.
If you are reading this, you almost certainly have the time and the means to alleviate suffering in someone. You could do it directly via donating time and energy, or indirectly via donating money. It might be as simple as comforting a friend or family member in physical or psychological pain, or as complex as running a charitable organization. Our professions can relieve suffering too; as a radiologist, I play a role by diagnosing conditions that cause suffering in patients.
If there can be a silver lining to endless suffering, it is that the opportunities to relieve it are also endless.
Life is not all suffering; in fact, it can be pretty freakin’ fantastic sometimes.
The potential for joy and beauty in the world is, like suffering, endless. The first time another’s lips touched your own. Laughing so hard that you cry. Driving through the desert at night, singing John Denver at the top of your lungs. Watching the sun set over the Mekong River. The smell of fall leaves. Sharing a beer and a conversation with an old friend. A taco with a Dorito shell.
You get the idea.
Those closest to us can bring the greatest joys in our lives. My wife, children and I undoubtedly create joy in each other. If my life ever flashes before my eyes, I suspect that montage will include my wife on our wedding day, my infant daughter’s giggle as I kiss her wiggling feet, and my son’s smile as I push him on the swing in the sun.
The lives of most humans in the last 200,000 years of our species (about 110 billion people) are unknowable to us. Those who were born and died thousands of years ago are forever lost to history, but even today—with the extensive digital footprint we each create—precious little will be known about our lives centuries from now.
But our friends and family—with whom we share our hopes, fears, dreams, ideas and lives—can carry a part of us with them after we die. To bear witness to the living and remember the dead is a simple yet profound gift we can give to those closest to us.
My brothers and cousins carry with us the last living memories of our late grandmothers. Born in the years between WWI and the Great Depression, they were both baptized with the solid Irish Catholic names of Mary. From an outside perspective, their lives were not very remarkable, but long and full of life nonetheless. I wish I had known them better when they were alive, especially their inner lives. I crave even the smallest window into what they were thinking and feeling.
I recently viewed a long-lost super 8 video of my teenage mother. Before this tape surfaced, the oldest known video of my mother was taken in her late 30s. In this newly discovered, soundless clip, she sat and laughed on a couch with her father, who died before I was born.
I was absolutely captivated. Her face and mannerisms were familiar, yet she was a complete stranger. I found myself wondering what it would be like to meet her and know her when she was a young woman.
Even today, my parents’ inner lives are largely a mystery. I realize I could simply ask them what they are thinking and feeling—and I do sometimes—but they can’t share everything, and those thoughts and feelings can change over time. They have lived whole lives that are unknown to me.
I’m starting to ramble, but my point is this: Years from now, I want my children to know who I was when they were young—my curiosities and obsessions, my concerns about the world and about them.
One of the driving forces behind this website is to get some of my thoughts on “paper,” so that my children can get a sense of their wacky dad in the years when they were tiny tots. They may not care to read them until decades from now, but I’m convinced by my experience with my own parents and grandparents that, one day, they will want to know more about me.
Many people find solace in the promise of eternal life after death. Not me, because I don’t believe it.
When the lights go out for old Dr. Curious many years from now, I don’t expect to see any pearly gates or old relatives. One minute I will be there, and the next gone.
But rather than depress me, these thoughts give me energy. If one does not believe in an afterlife, then anything and everything that matters occurs during our time here on Earth. I plan to make the most of it.
If you think you know the meaning of life—no offense—but you are probably wrong, and you will probably change your mind with time. Humans have struggled to find meaning in existence since we slept under the stars and were snacks for saber-toothed tigers. I won’t pretend to find the answers in a 1200-word blog post.
What I will do, however, is continue to search.
What gives meaning to your life? Has it changed over time?