Melbourne Catholic Magazine: The meaning of life in the questions
Friday 15 March 2019
Peggy Spencer, Melbourne Catholic Magazine
‘All my life, I struggled to stretch my mind to the breaking point,
until it began to creak, in order to create a great thought which might
be able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and
to console mankind.’
- Nikos Kazantzki
The famous poet T. S. Eliot once recounted a story of when he stepped into a London taxi. The driver recognised him, so Eliot asked him how he knew. ‘I’ve got an eye for a celebrity,’ the driver replied. ‘Only the other evening I picked up (philosopher) Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, “Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about?” And, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’ The question stumped arguably the most famous philosopher of the 20th century, yet we continue to ask it: what is the meaning of life?
We continue to ask it in the hope that there may just be someone out there who has the answer. Life needs to be meaningful, we reason, and so we follow different paths in our searching for that meaning. Even when we think we have a possible answer, we continue to ask more questions. And that’s not a bad thing. In asking questions, rather than discovering answers, we are lead on to a path to understanding.
As children, one of the most persistent questions we tended to ask was ‘why?’ Today, as adults, we continue asking—we want to know what things are and also why they are. Aristotle said this desire is universal, as all people by nature desire to find answers. Why are we here? What is the purpose of human life? Throughout the course of history, many philosophers have attempted to answer these questions. But as Charlie Brown discovered In the Book of Life, the answers aren’t always in the back!
Even King Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, concluded that human wisdom was ultimately meaningless. Even our wealth and prestige could not prevent our experiencing life’s pain and difficulties.
Thomas Merton said that fear of the unknown is the mark of spiritual insecurity: ‘It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked.’ And that, of course, is often our problem. Being afraid to ask the right questions in case they turn out to be unanswerable.
English pastor Phillip Brooks believed that the greatest danger people faced was that they ‘may fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, miss its deepest and most aiding happiness, and be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the presence of God.’
The reason for this failure to perceive life’s meaning, according to Richard Rohr in his book The Gist of Richard Rohr: Everything Belongs, is circular: we are unable to attain the presence of God because we are already totally in his presence. What is lacking is our awareness of his presence. Rohr also believes we have nothing to gain or even learn. Conversely, he says, there are certain things, however, we need to ‘unlearn’. And that includes assuming all our questions about life must be answered.
It’s no secret that the mysteries of God and our existence are far greater than we are able to comprehend. French 14th-century thinker Nicolas d’Oresme once observed: ‘We’re a grain of dust on a grain of dust on a grain of dust. And yet we have the intellect to contemplate all this!’
Perhaps John of the Cross was right when he paradoxically observed, ‘we begin to understand more by not understanding than by understanding.’ Even though understanding eludes us, questioning the meaning of life demands our attention and reflection. This sense of wonder at the goodness and beauty around us may prompt us to ask if all this is merely a random, physical phenomenon. Or, is there a reason, a purpose for our existence? What is the point of living if we don’t know the point of living? One answer is that we live because we have a will to live. We possess an inherent, self-preservation instinct that drives us onwards.
Different religious traditions have arrived at variations of a similar answer. Buddhists believe the secret of life is, in part, to concentrate on the present moment. Mahatma Ghandi believed the secret was to live as if you were to die tomorrow and yet learn to live as if you were going to live forever. Jesus taught us that the secret of life is to love God and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Maybe, the answer to all our questions to the meaning of life is simply to relax and just quietly and patiently allow the transforming rhythm of God to show us the way.
[Click here to read more from Melbourne Catholic magazine]