An email from a long lost fraternity brother stimulated some thought on an old question, what is the meaning of life. Monte Python did a movie with the title years ago, my thoughts might not be as well presented as theirs and certainly not as entertaining. But to me the meaning of life has become a occasionally thought provoking quest. Some people have no doubts about the meaning of life, they point to their religious faith. For them the meaning of life is easy; it is what ever their faith dictates; for me it is more complex.
I was raised Jewish and like many of my peers, I became more secular than religious. I lack the belief in an ancient book, an invisible, omnipotent god and the stories surrounding it. I live in a modern world with many of the unknowns of five thousand years ago explained. A man I respect, Joseph Campbell said that “any other persons religion is mythology”. I accept that statement, to me all religion is mythology. I am trying to find a meaning for my life in a more secular context.
Since I find myself excluding the biblical text book, I reflect on reality as I see it. The biological answer is simple, too simple for the human race. The meaning of life is to reproduce, that too is in the bible, be fruitful and multiply, and that made sense in time of far smaller populations. That same biological imperative applies to all species from cockroaches to humans. I doubt that cockroaches consider anything more if even that. I am looking for an answer that requires reason, something cockroaches might lack, a meaning that might vary person to person.
There are three distinct phases to life, remember the Riddle of the Sphinx. The first life is childhood, we crawl, we learn and we play . By playing and learning we build a social network and use all of the aquired skills in the second phase, adulthood. When and if the second phase starts our activities might vary a great deal.
Some adults never seem to leave the first life, they forget learning and just play. They assume the next meal will come to them, depending on the culture it might, or might not. Most adults learn how to provide for a family, they might do it with a job or they might create a business. They might marry a person who can provide for those lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy so they can focus on the genetic drive to have children and raise a family.
As most of us learn, it is much easier to have children than to raise them. The second phase of life focuses on either earning or nurturing; both driven by the need to provide. Play for many becomes a secondary release, some like me forget how to play. Many, most people I know never leave the second life, they live and die on the treadmill. Learning to play again has been a challenge for me, even now after years of trying.
Other people avoid the drive for children and just focus on accumulation of wealth and power; I feel sorry for them. Unless like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, they believe they can take it with them, all that wealth is left behind when the grim reaper comes to visit. Wealth cannot be the meaning of life, at least not for me. Wealth does not, cannot, buy happiness.
One of the lessons I have learned by immersion in Panama is that money is nice and the absence makes like difficult, but I know families here who have happiness well below poverty level. I know others here and in the US who have huge fortunes but are miserable. Is the meaning of life happiness, something that cannot be bought.
When is the pivotal moment, the transition from second life to third life? For me it happened eleven years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer. I decided that if I survived I was going to change my life, enough of living to earn. I wanted to give four children opportunity, emotional support and education. They, like me in my time, needed to move into the second life; five years later it was time for my third life.
I decided to leave the US, leave and start again, I once again quoting Joseph Campbell, decided to “follow my bliss”. The goal this time, for the first time since my wedding, was a focus on finding a new meaning of life for me. It has been a wonderful journey, now into a sixth year in Panama. I have travelled, learned a new language and made many new friends. I have achieved goals here I never could in my second life because here I have the time to focus on things I want to do, not things I need to do. It is indeed a new, third life.
Some of my friends have never taken the pause to contemplate the meaning of life, others have found their own answers. I am still open to new options, still searching, but I am happy. I firmly believe in three phases of life, learning, earning and then if you are lucky finding happiness in a lower pressure environment.
It is my sincere hope that as long as I can, I will keep exploring, keep learning and keep sharing. Maybe the meaning of life for me is to earn the self satisfaction that comes from doing what feels good and what gives back to the greater community. Maybe we as humans collectively are bigger than the individual, less social than bees and ants but more than hermit crabs.
The message I can convey to anyone who has read this far is that if you do not stop to think about the question, you will likely join the masses who die without even considering why they lived.
What is the message, in Latin it is, Carpe Diem, sieze the moment. Realize as I did eleven years ago that we are all mortal and will all leave this world on a day and time unknown to us. If you never do more than work to live, you have not learned to live. Sieze the opportunity when you can or you will never find the meaning of your life.