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A Survey of Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

Jim Dorsch has written about food, drink and music for 25 years. He occasionally foists what passes for humor on unsuspecting readers.

The British band Procol Harum devoted half their 1968 Shine on Brightly LP to a song called In Held 'Twas I. The first section, Glimpses of Nirvana, details a pilgrim's search for the meaning of life. The pilgrim seeks the answer from the Dalai Lama, and is told that he must first spend five years in contemplation. He does this, and is granted an audience with the Dalai Lama, who says, “Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn't it?”

Try for a double-word score.

Try for a double-word score.

A More Nuanced View

Procol Harum was having some fun with us, of course. So, what does the Dalai Lama really say about the meaning of life?

In the essay Compassion and the Individual, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (b. 1935), writes, "I believe the very purpose of life is to be happy." He divides happiness and suffering into categories of mental and physical, and if the physical being is in reasonable condition, he recommends you devote your attention to the condition of your mind.

Live Life Now

The Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) said, “You will never live life if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

Young people often spend inordinate amounts of time fretting about why they aren't happy, and wondering about what it all means. Older people are more likely to just live life and enjoy it. One of life's ironies is that those with the least amount of time left on this Earth enjoy it more than those with the most.

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said, “Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

You have to wonder just what some people are thinking about. It's generally not the meaning of life, nor the meaning of anything else. If your primary activities consist of sitting on the sofa and staring at the television, then you're not really living. If you spend significant amounts of time on wanton debauchery, then you're not compelled to give your life any meaning, save perhaps as an object lesson.

Others think about nothing but the meaning of life. To be more specific, they think about how they don't understand it, or don't even know what to look for. This consumes their thoughts. They never figure it out, but they spend their lives contemplating it, or worrying about it. Perhaps the Dalai Lama has a hole in his schedule for them, so they can waste his time as well as theirs.

This is It

The writer Audre Lorde (1934-1992) said, “Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.”

Your life is going on right now. Some folks seem to think it's going to start in a little while, after they figure things out. At that point it will be over.

Some people are convinced that they know the meaning of life, and they are obsessed with changing the views of the rest of us who haven't experienced their revelation. These people seem to be divided between the Christians and the atheists—those who know there is a God and those who know there is not. (Teetotalers and political types issue similar, equally vapid utterances.) They have one thing in common. They feel obliged to rant about their beliefs until the rest of us agree with them, which will never occur. They are wasting their time.

Decide to Be Happy

The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) said, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”

Someone who acts unhappy makes a decision to be that way. There are occasional days that truly warrant unhappiness. But most aren't like that. You can be happy or unhappy. It's your choice.

People choose to be unhappy about many things. Is it really worth it? Isn't happiness what life is all about?

On a basic level, even if you believe happiness is not what it's all about, you really measure your progress in life by your happiness. If you think you should devote yourself to others, then that makes you happy. If you believe in putting yourself first, then that makes you happy.

In life, happiness is the coin of the realm. Try to accumulate some.

Problems, Problems

"Life is problems. Living is solving problems," wrote Raymond E. Feist (b. 1945) in the novel Silverthorn. He makes a good point. From day one, you have to solve problems, whether it's getting a diaper change or buying a new suit. Crying can be quite effective when you want that diaper change, but not so much when you need a suit. Life is about doing something. Figure out how to get the suit and do it. Other people are busy solving their own problems, and they have no time to watch you cry.

"The literal meaning of life is whatever you're doing that prevents you from killing yourself," wrote Camus. Spinning this more positively, one might say our purpose is to prolong our happiness and wellbeing, both personally and as a species. Animals—plants, too—are all about prolonging their lives. The same applies to humans. Doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, all strive to make our lives longer, easier, healthier and more prosperous. But they can only do so much. We need to do our part. Take care of the physical plant, i.e., your body, and put it to good use.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008) said as much in his novel Congo: "The purpose of life is to stay alive." Your job as a human is to recognize reality, determine the parameters of problems and take appropriate action. The problem might be getting out of the latest hole you've found yourself in, or how to reach a goal. Philosophically, it's all the same.

Trust Yourself

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I'm going with Jobs on this. Otherwise, I'll spend the rest of my life regretting, and I don't have time for that.

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