It’s taken humankind thousands of years, but I think I finally have the answer. I know the meaning of life.
For many people, questions about the meaning of life get set aside; but, for us shrinks, we encounter them every day. Questioning the meaning of life is part of the human condition, as ubiquitous and basic as walking upright and having opposable thumbs. It preoccupies many of us some of the time; but is generally dismissed as an enigmatic and fruitless endeavor. It’s hard to talk about it and even harder to find someone to talk about it with, which is why people talk about it with their shrinks.
Having had so many of these conversations, I’ve stuck with it longer than most. I’m ready to tell you what it is.
The meaning of life is like this.
Imagine you go to a park and join people kicking a ball around. It all seems pointless until you realize you’re in a soccer game. Then everything makes sense. You know what to do. If you have the ball, you try to get it in the other team’s goal. If you don’t, then you get in the way. It’s simple, it’s direct. If it’s a soccer game, you’ll run until you’re ready to bust a gut. You’ll scream with joy when you score and hang your head when you lose. Chasing a ball for ninety minutes is not meaningless if it’s a soccer game.
In the same manner, the meaning of life while you’re brushing your teeth is brushing your teeth; when you’re driving to work, it’s driving to work; when you’re reading a blog post, it’s reading a blog post. You could immerse yourself fully in everything you do and, as far as they go, derive meaning, direction, and purpose for all of the minutes of your life. You could be very happy that way, unless you do something very foolish.
What is this foolish thing that would extinguish the meaningfulness of playing soccer, or any other simple activity?
Questioning why you do it.
“What am I busting a gut for? What difference does it make if I score a goal?”
Someone on your team might have an answer. “If we score enough goals, we win.”
If you’re still foolish, you could continue to question. “Why does winning matter?”
“If we win enough games, we win the championship.”
“Why is that important?”
“If we win the championship, you get a trophy.”
“Why do I want a trophy?”
“If you get a trophy, you’ll feel proud to have it on your shelf.”
“Why would I care?” And on, and on, and on. You get the idea. It doesn’t end.
Or, you could go on a different tack.
“Why am I running my ass off on this field, chasing a ball?”
“You’re getting in shape.”
“Why do I need to get in shape?”
“So you can live longer.”
“Why would I want to live longer?”
“So you can play more soccer.”
In this case, the questions and answers go in a circle, but they still never end.
You might start thinking that all your questions are pointless until you realize you’re playing a different kind of game. The soccer game has ended, you are now doing philosophy.
Everything makes sense again. You know how to proceed. If you’re doing philosophy and you have a question, you try to stump everyone by asking it. If someone tries to give you an answer, you use logic to poke holes in their claims. It’s simple and it’s direct. If it’s philosophy, you’ll argue for hours until you’re ready to tear your hair out. Talking forever without getting anywhere is not meaningless if it’s philosophy.
Unlike soccer, you can philosophize on your own by asking and answering your own questions. Philosophy is a fine game to play, every bit as, but not the slightest bit more absorbing and meaningful as soccer. That’s because, at some point when you’re philosophizing, you’re apt to have the same questions as when you were playing soccer. What’s the point of philosophizing? If I figured out the meaning of life, would that change life? What would be the difference if I knew?
This is what I learned. Every question stands on another question. You never get to the bottom of questions. What’s the meaning of life? It’s questions all the way down.