The Meaning of Life: Why Ask Why?
A brief introduction to The Ultimate Question.
"It is in the most familiar things of life
that the deepest mystery lies hidden."
- J. J. van der Leeuw
What’s the point?
Why get out of bed in the morning? Why fight gravity all day long, just to stay upright?
Is life just a long, hard road that leads nowhere, a relentless struggle just to end as a dirt nap in your best suit or dress, a burst of drama between birth and death, full of sound of fury, but signifying nothing?
These are simple questions.
But they aren’t easy.
And they are worth asking.
This isn’t small talk or bull-session fodder. This takes us to the heart of things. As Ron Burgandy might say, it’s “kind of a big deal.”
Few of us would agree to get aboard a ship with an unknown destination. But we're already standing on the deck of this "ship" of life, and yet, some folks can't be bothered to ask where it's heading.
Zen teacher Richard Rose put it well when he said that man is an isthmus between two oblivions: the billions of years before he was born, and the billions of years of years after he dies; yet people say they don't have time to ask questions.
This letter conveys it well.
Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in work. They are carrying bricks in an open field. As soon as they have stacked all the bricks at one end of the field, they proceed to transport them to the opposite end. This continues without stop and every day of every year they are busy doing the same thing. One day one of the morons stops long enough to ask himself what he is doing. He wonders what purpose there is in carrying the bricks. And from that instant on he is not quite as content with his occupation as he had been before.
I am the moron who wonders why he is carrying the bricks.¹
We’re all carrying bricks of some kind.
Why should we persist in the relentless struggles of life? What’s the reason to endure and brave the slings and arrows life throws at us? When you stack all the pains of life up against all the pleasures, how do they measure up?
We all have a brief few moments between birth and death where we have a chance to make a few moves.
So, what moves are worth making?
These questions are worth asking.
Most folks see “the meaning thing” as the most important question we can ask. It's the biggest of The Big Questions.
The Question, pursued properly, doesn't become an intellectual goose chase. It leads to a deeper, richer, and fuller life. And not just that: it can be a matter of life and death.
But here's the thing: it's not a question you can choose to answer or not.
You can't not answer.
Like with many other existential riddles life puts to us, we don't have a choice about whether we answer or not. Our only choice is the quality of our answers. The only question is whether we answer consciously, and rigorously, and whether we put real effort into it. Or not.
Some of the most brilliant and influential individuals throughout history have been obsessed with the question. Billions of others folks have as well.
So, is it a question worth looking into?
But what can someone expect from digging more deeply in to this?
Some folks think asking about this is a snipe hunt, an intellectual goose chase, a waste of time that could be better spent doing something more meaningful. (Which, as we'll see, presumes an answer to the meaning of life.)
Hopefully our little exploration here will demonstrate otherwise. That a conscious endeavor to explore this matter can lead to a richer, deeper, more fulfilling life.
Asking questions like this can lead you on a quest.
In a way, it’s a quest for priceless treasure. (Not to be too dramatic or anything.)
It’s not a quest for gold or diamonds or an ancient Indiana Jones artifact. It's an inner quest, where the “treasure” is a game worth playing, a fight worth fighting, a mission worth taking.
It's a quest each of us is already engaged in. The only question is whether we’re doing it consciously and deliberately or unconsciously and accidentally. After all, we all live, struggle, suffer, and die. But the trick, it seems, lies in finding something worth living, struggling, suffering and dying for.
This quest seemed to us, your trusty and cuddly LiveReal Agents, like one worth embarking on.
How do you explore this kind of thing?
Well, something we noticed very quickly: the problem these days isn’t that nobody has answers to the meaning of life.
The problem today seems to be that everyone has floods of answers to the meaning of life. They range from the classic to the newfangled, the universal to the custom-tailored, the simple to the absurdly complex. Everyone seems to have their favorites.
But in this environment, the issue at this point becomes not finding answers, but sorting through the avalanche of answers that already exist, digesting them, and putting them in some kind of order.
That can be a bit overwhelming.
So, our first job here is to simplify.
We can get rolling first by just gathering all the answers we can find into one place.
We'll call this - the "gathering" phase - "Phase 1."
"Phase 2," then, is simplifying and categorizing all these answers into a few basic groups.
Then the fun really starts.
"Phase 3" is giving these answers a full, in-depth, white-glove body-cavity probe. The goal there is to see what's real and what's not, what holds up and what collapses. After that, we probe the strengths of various answers, to see what makes them so popular. And eventually, we look for an approach, out of all the various answers we've reviewed, that avoids the weaknesses but keeping the strengths. Eventually, our hope is to find ourselves with possibly a higher caliber of answer than what we have right now.
Let’s get probing.
- or if you'd rather skip ahead:
1 Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy, New York, HarperCollins, 1980), 419.)