The Meaning of Life
June 25, 2016
The meaning of life, where do I begin? As I picked this topic, I decided to start my research by asking my family and friends what their opinions were. But first, I asked Siri: “what is the meaning of life?” Her response was, “I don’t know. But I think there is an app for that.” This was the moment when I realized that finding the meaning of life was not going to be easy.
The next day, when I went to school, I asked my friends and classmates what the meaning of life was from their perspective. Many answered right away, quick answers consisting mostly of becoming wealthy and famous, while others decided to text me their answers later because they had to think about it. I loved arriving home and turning on my cell phone to see all the replies I had gotten from my friends. The wording of each one was unique; however, there were common themes that remained present throughout the texts. Some of these common themes included determination, perseverance, trying your best, remaining true to yourself, and also enjoying life and what it has to offer. I enjoyed having conversations about this topic with my friends, as they were not the typical conversations that take place among middle schoolers.
After that, I googled the meaning of life. To my surprise, I got 1.2 billion results! And I checked Amazon. Close to 200,000 results came up. Then I realized just how many people had already attempted to answer this question, including my own grandfather, Saul, when at eighteen he set out to find the meaning of life with a group of friends.
During my initial meeting with Rabbi Peter, he suggested that I look into the difference between a person’s meaning of life and his or her purpose in life. While doing research, I came across the following formula: Your legacy equals the meaning you ascribe to your life, multiplied by the purpose you decide to pursue, to the power of your passion, divided by the number of distractions and the impact you let them have on you. While thinking about this formula, I came to realize that it would not only yield a different result for each person, but possibly also for each person at different times throughout that person’s life.
[Legacy = (Meaning x Purpose)ˆ(passion)]/Distractions
I further found that a “purpose” is a belief that something or someone has a reason for being, and that “meaning” is the value or values that are assigned to that belief. For example, the purpose of a piece of art may be for its creator to earn money in order to buy food to feed his family. Once that piece of art is displayed in a gallery or museum, each person seeing the piece of art may interpret its “meaning” differently according to his or her own life experiences.
Purpose therefore is “objective,” and “meaning” is subjective. “Purpose” does not have to be known in order to exist. For example, a person can find a watch and not know what it does – however it still has a purpose. Meaning does have to be known in order to exist. Meaning is what we place on an object, what it means to each one of us. For example, if that same person received the watch as a present from someone special, receiving the watch from that special person is its very meaning.
When I conducted research about the meaning of life as interpreted by various religions, I found that most sources used the terms meaning and purpose interchangeably. While studying the 4,000 year old ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian societies, I found it interesting that there were groups of people around the world who held more or less the same beliefs about the meaning of life, and how best to live one’s life, as we do today. These civilizations believed that the meaning of life consisted of being kind, generous, respectful, and fair to others; getting a good education in order to find a good job; and, taking life seriously by living it consciously to achieve success and happiness.
When I studied Christian ideology, I learned that according to Christianity, God created humans so we could have a relationship with God. This is why God created a universe fit for human life, and laid down guidelines for how to live our lives. Faith in God and in Jesus is right at the heart of the Christian conception of the meaning of life, and dictates the way to achieve fulfillment.
Similarly, in Islam, the object of human life is to believe in one God and do good in this world, in order to eventually meet with the Creator in the hereafter. This life is a preparation for the hereafter – or ‘Eternal Home’ – to which all human beings ultimately go. As such, Muslims are required to observe righteousness in their daily life, based on teachings from the Koran.
When I explored Paganism, I learned that it is a somewhat vague term to designate an eclectic group of people without one single specific and common religion. Most of them have more than one deity and tend to be nature oriented. There is no consensus on the exact practice of the pagan lifestyle, however honor and virtue are often present in pagan traditions. The expression of such values takes different forms within the various cultures that comprise Paganism.
Harmony and balance are not abstract philosophical concepts for traditional Native Americans, but rather they are formulas for daily living. According to the Native Americans, the practice of harmony and balance is simply something that human beings should do in daily life, and its meaning is found while living in tune with nature’s cycles.
Buddhist teachings are concerned with leading an ethical life, analyzing one’s existence to find meaning in it, developing an inner peace through meditation, as well as experiencing boundless compassion and love for others.
The meaning of life for Hinduism comprises: acting virtuously and righteously; repaying the debt human beings owe to the Gods, parents, teachers, guests, other human beings and all other living beings; the pursuit of wealth and prosperity in life, without stepping outside moral and ethical grounds; obtaining enjoyment from life; and enlightenment.
Judaism focuses on this world and this life, and not some future world or world to come. Traditional Jewish philosophy emphasizes that by making the world a better place God is not affected, but the individual and society benefit. Judaism includes among its fundamental values the pursuit of justice, compassion, peace, kindness, hard work, prosperity, humility, and education.
Humanistic Judaism offers a nontheistic alternative in contemporary Jewish life. On the City Congregation website there is a statement that reads:
”Humanistic Judaism is a secular Jewish denomination that celebrates the centrality of human judgment and human power from a uniquely Jewish perspective. As humanists we believe that reason, rather than faith, is the source of truth, and that human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives.”
Humanistic Judaism focuses on the cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. It provides a structure for humanistic and secular Jews to celebrate their Jewish identity by participating in Jewish holidays and lifecycle events (such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs) with inspirational ceremonies that draw upon, but go beyond traditional literature.
The following is a quote about the purpose of life according to Humanistic Judaism from the Shabbat service that our congregation uses:
”We believe that the purpose of life is bringing about justice and human dignity.
Some people believe that the purpose of life is personal happiness. Striving for pleasure, even at the expense of others, becomes the goal.
Some people believe that the purpose of life is getting ahead. The ends justify the means and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the process.
Still others believe that the purpose of life is obedience to a deity. Not questioning is a virtue and the offer of an afterlife is the remedy for the hardships of this life.
We believe that the purpose of life is in enabling people to live in freedom with autonomy and choice.
We believe that the purpose of life is making the most of the lives we have each and every day.”
Judaism has often been described as a religion of deed, not creed. This observation applies to Humanistic and traditional Jews alike. Observing religious practices and doing acts of social justice are much more important than embracing specific beliefs. The meaning of life and the purpose of life are achieved not by what we say or confess but by how we act and how we behave.
There are countless songs throughout time and different countries addressing the meaning of life, including songs by Beethoven, The Beatles, Celia Cruz, and Andy Grammer; references in TV shows like Que Pasa USA and Girl Meets World, as well as Broadway shows like Lion King, Finding Neverland and Fiddler on the Roof. In the world of art, The Thinker by Rodin is an expression of someone who reflects upon the meaning of life, and Mattisse’s Icarus conveys a space to wonder about the meaning of life.
I believe that the meaning of life is not a static concept; it varies from one person to another, throughout a person’s life, at different times in history and across geographies. It is defined by internal factors, such as personality and how we process life experiences, as well as by external factors, such as the time and place where we live.
I also learned that even though the meaning of life varies from one person to another, and from time to time within a person’s life, there are universal principles that have withstood the test of time, from the ancient civilizations through today, such as kindness, generosity, respect, being fair, awareness, tolerance and compassion.
Every person has the opportunity to find meaning in each moment, and do the best we can to build a positive life with what we are given. It all translates into every day life, by how we understand each moment or experience and making the best choices that we can.
I would like to end my presentation with a quote from the psychologist Eric Fromm:
“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.”