What does it mean to live a meaningful life, I muse as I sit at my desk on a sullen Tuesday evening, listening to Seven Lions and shovelling lemon slice into my mouth. It’s a question that has popped into my head from time to time over the years, until I get distracted by more pertinent issues such as licking the icing off my fingers and checking Facebook.
It’s a question that has done a little more popping than usual in recent months, maybe because of the nature of my work. I see a lot of people who feel their lives are meaningless; or, sometimes, we look at them and judge them to have meaningless lives.
I see a lot of people who don’t leave the house. People who find it a challenge and a personal success to go out for a fifteen-minute walk, who struggle to get dressed and take a shower and do their chores. I see others who have no motivation or desire to do anything. They wallow, unwashed, largely unseen by the rest of society, in their bedrooms, playing video games (X-Boxes are particularly popular). They survive on unemployment benefits.
They are not productive members of society. We treat them and we try to improve their “social functioning”, try to improve their connectedness and train them in “job skills” and get them involved with “activities”. We try to gift them with “meaning”.
Is productivity, then, a measure of a meaningful life? If you contribute to society in some way. If you give back to your community, if you make money and pay taxes and fuel the economy, if you have big projects and do things that change the world. Is the cardiothoracic surgeon, then, or the human rights ambassador, living a more meaningful life than the stay-at-home parent or the post-man? What sort of contribution to society should we aspire to?
When I went to church, this was a huge question. What is the meaning of being alive? As teenagers, we talked about it with each other all the time, shiny-eyed and eager to discover our callings and our place in the big wide world. We decided that a meaningful life was simply one where you did what God had called you for. I have no doubt that many people still follow this path today and derive a lot of fulfilment from it.
What about creativity? Creating something, whether it be a work of art, a piece of writing, a design, a recipe, a precedent, a building or road, and leaving it in the world to be a legacy after you are gone. Is that meaningful?
Still others talk about finding meaning in pursuing your own goals and seeking your own happiness. After all, you only get one life, and your life is entirely your own, and no one else’s. Why not seek to put yourself first?
And still others talk about finding meaning in touching other people’s lives. A life cannot be meaningless if you have done something to better another person’s experience, if you have left your fingerprint in someone else’s book. That, they say, is how you will know you have lived a good one.
I’ve run out of lemon slice. Time to get another piece and check Facebook.