“What Is the Meaning of Life?”

My first two answers were “A Monty Python movie” and “42.” Neither of those where what the speaker had in mind, so I kept my trap firmly shut. I can act like a grown-up, on occasion. If there are a sufficiently large number of witnesses.

Then me being me, I ran through three of the catechism answers that I remembered (none of which apply to the church where I currently sing. Of course.) Personally, I’d argue that meaning is personal, not collective. The speaker went along the chosen topic and my mind wandered off into the weeds, then over the river, through the woods, down the primrose path, past the Slough of Despond, and drifted back toward the official topic when the phrase, “What were his last words,” came along.

And again, my mind wandered, this time to Randall Thompson’s “Last Words of David.” David’s last words were a command and testament, in the sense of testifying about something. “He that ruleth over men must be just; ruling in the fear of G-d” That’s the charge, the command. And if the ruler is just? “He shall be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, even as a morning without clouds when the tender grass riseth out of the earth after rain.” The obedient man will be blessed and will prosper. During the middle ages, someone’s last words were very, very important and people gathered to hear them.* Often, final disposition of property happened at that point, and the individual was thought to be closer to the divine, and so might offer a warning or revelation. If the person was dying in public (i.e.executed), then it was anticipated that he or she’d have a speech, sometimes humorous, sometimes dramatic, occasionally a confession “Yes, I was terrible and I deserve this and don’t do what I did.” And of course we have modern jokes about “Here, hold my beer!” or “What could possibly go wro—” and so on.

Death used to be a community matter, too important to happen in solitude, if possible. The meaning of life used to be a community matter as well, although I suspect the majority of people wouldn’t phrase it like that. Having relatives in the church yard meant that you belonged to the place. Going back much farther, having relatives in the chamber tombs and mounds surrounding Stonehenge also meant that you and your people belonged. The ancestors watched as the transition from life to death concluded for the individual, and the community feasted to honor the dead and the living. Life was family continuity, blood-kin or faith-kin, and the meaning of most people’s lives was to ensure that another generation or two had property and a good model to build upon.

What is the meaning of life? What is a good life [insert Conan quote and all it’s myriad variations here]? No idea, but a lot of other people have ideas about it, some I agree with, some I boggle at, some that make me want to take a long shower after I apply automatic weapons fire to the idea.

*No, it was not good for public health when infectious disease was involved. But germ theory hadn’t been invented yet.

8 thoughts on ““What Is the Meaning of Life?”

  1. I need the *big honkin’ urn* of coffee to think clearly about this, and thanks for reminding me to assemble thoughts. I work with a group of college-age men, many of whom seem to be on autopilot. They don’t live and act according to a philosophy or meaning, but seem to go with “react to the next available experience or feeling”.

    The final words ought to be a summation or response to the initial thoughts, or a meaning developed over time. David’s last word were the response to his anointing by Samuel, chastisement for overconfidence as king, and penance for his sins of adultery (and others). To be just, and rule with the fear of God – a lot of meanings are enfolded in those few words — got an idea now.

  2. “What is the meaning of life?”
    Such simple words.
    Leave things better than you found them.
    Fight entropy.

  3. I’d go with 42 also, but the meaning of life ‘means’ different things to people depending on their situations. I don’t think there IS a perfect answer, even in scripture, at least none that we can perceive. Having said that, I do tend to agree with Lourain, leave things better than you found them would be at least ‘one’ goal in life…

  4. Best answer I ever heard to this question was very Zen: The search for meaning is the meaning.

    Then there’s another idea I’ve seen a couple of places: Life is the Universe’s way of trying to figure out what the h*** is going on. Our mission in life is to contribute to the Universe’s understanding of Itself.

    But “leave the world a better place than you found it” works too.

  5. Not a joke, but General Sedgwick’s last words at the battle of Spotsylvania illustrates something, perhaps the relationship between hubris and nemesis:

    Warned about Confederate snipers, he replied: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.”

    Immediately thereafter, he was shot in the head.

    h/t battlefields.org

    • I remember hearing a version where he didn’t even finish the sentence before the sniper got him. 😈

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