Late Night Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

In 2009 I wrote an essay on the BIG question: life’s meaning. I was drawn to the possibility a better question might be found behind it.

I wondered if it could be more useful to consider how the meaning of life might change over time. Stated that way, the question would produce different answers as an individual aged and grew. My 13-year-old post, therefore, focused on the many reasons we do what we do at life’s various stages, as demonstrated by where we put our time and effort.

The ancient Greeks used the word telos, the end goal driving us from a starting point. Some of us have such a target requiring years of dedication, while others don’t. A youngster hopeful of becoming an Olympic champion is an example of the former.

In my mind, however, whether we begin aiming for a bullseye, we can give it up and substitute a different aim. Ambitions are changeable, and one’s goals depend on moments of choice in anyone’s life. A suitable target might be one thing at 15, quite another when you are 40, and still another at 65.

Whether one believes in one meaning or more meanings in any lifetime, neither strategy offers a singular purpose applicable in all situations. That is, a short answer satisfying at any age, place, or segment in your history or mine.

Perhaps that’s why I set aside thinking about life’s meaning after writing the 2009 essay. I found nothing more to say or consider, so I believed.

Until now, when a friend offered a new idea after watching a YouTube video.

The enlightenment he provided consisted of whether people might engage in actions without wanting to set a goal sparking their labor. Was there any significant activity without external ambition or intention causing exertion in a specified direction?

Put differently, is life’s significance to be found in automatic motivation without a telos, target, or aim, except for doing the activity itself? One would engage in whatever it might be without expecting some payoff or distant fulfillment.

Almost all the other possible meanings are done for reasons beyond themselves. However, the one I’m thinking of is important for itself alone. Not making money, finding love, pleasing a deity, living by heavenly rules, creating a family, achieving fame, or purchasing the perfect home.

Nor is such a singular long-term practice intended to produce life satisfaction, lasting happiness, or someone else’s approval.

The answer is affirmative and obvious, but I never recognized it.

To learn for its own sake at every stage of life.

There would be no promises of an advanced degree like a Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. propelling you toward graduation. No intention of having a worthwhile career because of what you learn. No desire to reach heaven or repair the world with your well-earned knowledge.

I am not suggesting such actions or their intended goals lack merit. Yet, if the meaning of life were to become a physician, for example, we’d have received the news long ago and flooded the world’s medical schools.

Learning is not like that if done for itself. No outside objective exists, though one woman in class acquiring knowledge for herself might be sitting beside a lady trying to gain entry to med school. They both would be learning, but not for the same reason.

Gathering understanding just for itself is as satisfactory a solution to the question of life’s meaning as I can imagine. We are, after all, creatures who spend our lives discovering more about the world.

We do it in an unconscious fashion as well as by intention. We do it even when we have no duty, desire, or calling to enrich ourselves by using what we learn, though we might grow as human beings — improving ourselves because of what we discover. Those products of our tuition would be incidental to the mastery we accumulate.

Some scientists and philosophers say reproduction is the essential task of all living things. Without creating new little creatures, our planet would be empty.

Indeed, in many cases, we learn as a means to win love and have a family, though learning and familial love tend not to be on our minds as we add to our knowledge of what we need to do in advance of those wants.

The direction toward which knowledge-seeking takes us depends on our abilities, the role of chance, and the prior experiences of our lifetimes. This includes how we were brought up, the limits of our imagination, and more. 

Among other factors are the people we encounter, the places we live, our moment in history, extant medical knowledge, and the actions of people who came before us.

After all, for any of us to be born, every one of our ancestors reproduced with just the person they did.

Think of it. Even identical twins are not perfect in their identity, and their life experiences vary. You and I are unique, one of a kind, and this world will never produce such another.

You will learn from almost everything and lead your life based upon the conclusions you draw as your train passes through the “everything of it all.” You will be the only human who acquires the precise combination of lessons you absorb. They will influence your life in thoughtful, casual, and unconscious ways, including what you order from a restaurant menu.

Moreover, what we discover will fit our lives only for a while (as aged people realize). Thus, Homo sapiens have to reconsider the same lessons over and over because the “right” answers undergo alteration, like a school exam scored with one answer key on Monday and a different one on Friday.

Every soul changes over time, as we discover with an honest look in the mirror or reading the number on the bathroom scale.

A great opportunity exists to learn and accomplish something with the tuition our inquisitive nature offers us. Learning might be the one thing fate has put on our list of things to do from almost the moment we were thrown into life.

Nor do we have a choice in the matter, as Ecclesiastes 1:18 reminds us in the Hebrew Bible,

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The acquisition of knowledge is our lot.

Do you say this isn’t a satisfying meaning for life?

Who promised permanent satisfaction?

But I’d like to think, without searching for it, all our learning leads to at least one piece of awareness.

That we learn to be kind and offer joy to others along the way.

Learning can be joyous, you know.

And if you don’t, perhaps it’s time you found out.

==========

The first image is The Dance by Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla in 1915, sourced from History Daily. Next comes Child’s Head, the work of Albrecht Durer from Wikiart.org/ The third image is called Classic Learning, the sign for the Brown House of Learning on the TRU campus, from cogdogblog via Wikimedia Commons. Finally, King Penguins at S. Georgia, Antarctica Peninsula, 2022 by Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

21 thoughts on “Late Night Thoughts on the Meaning of Life

  1. I really enjoy reading your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An Audience of One

    If your posts were in print form (or even Kindle), I’d have them highlighted from start to finish. 😊

    I love what you said about learning for it’s own sake, because even done informally, learning energizes me. And yet, outside of demographics, college opportunities, etc., I hadn’t considered that the direction learning takes depends on a plethora of factors. It makes sense though!

    With all that said, my favorite part is this: “…the conclusions you draw as your train passes through the “everything of it all.” You will be the only human who acquires the precise combination of lessons you absorb.”
    Such a very beautiful thought, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kendra. Walking outside, one might notice what nearby animals and birds are doing. At an event where we observe people wearing ties, we might realize they tie them in a way we don’t know how to do, leading us to find the secret and use the procedure forever after. Or, perhaps, reading a blog like yours and learning something new. I’m glad you liked the turn of phrase about the train. I’m happy it worked. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. Life is larger than that lived with others, with responsibilities, expectations or disappointments. There is something inside, alone, belonging only to oneself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am flattered….. Share the blessings! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Joan. I couldn’t have put it quite the lovely and wise way you did, but our internal existence will lead the way to an exciting life if we allow it to. One’s life need never be boring. For example, many of our fellow men and women find intellectual and emotional companionship in reading. As you underline, we are each unique. Our inner lives are worthy of respect.

      Like

  4. Thank you, Dr. Stein – what a powerful post! I love this, especially: “You will learn from almost everything and lead your life based upon the conclusions you draw as your train passes through the “everything of it all.” You will be the only human who acquires the precise combination of lessons you absorb. They will influence your life in thoughtful, casual, and unconscious ways, including what you order from a restaurant menu.” This speaks to me…as much as we’d like to believe (maybe for the sake of simplicity?) that shared/common experiences result in similar outcomes/impact on individuals, it’s the aggregate…the “everything of it all” (our journey on the ‘train’, as you said) that makes humans unique. I love that. And this — your reminder to keep evolving and learn to offer joy to others. If not now, when? Thank you for filling me up this morning! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve observed in my own journey that the meaning of life has changed as I entered each new stage of life. Learning has remained the only constant. In learning what works and doesn’t work for my survival, acceptance, and well-being, I have grown and hopefully gained wisdom along the way. Does that make learning the meaning of life? I don’t know. However, as you note in your closing remarks, it makes all the difference in life when “we learn to be kind and offer joy to others along the way.”

    Liked by 3 people

  6. That is beautifully stated, Rosaliene. Thank you. Whatever meaning applies to life, it surely should encompass the life you have led and are leading.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tamara Kulish from https://tamarakulish.com/

    When I was younger I met a few men who were quite intent on pinning down the “correct” or the “ultimate” meaning of life. They would debate and argue with each other, try to draw other people into their conversations (myself included), and then lay out their arguments as to why they were right.

    I saw life differently than they did; not so much as a competition to find the 1 perfect answer, but rather as a mosaic. As you pointed out, every single person is different, so each of our motivations will be slightly different.

    What’s the answer to “which one”? All of them! They’re all correct! None are wrong or invalid, we just might not agree to them!

    “Be a good person and win God’s approval!” says one person who then strives to live a righteous life.

    “To kill as many people as possible, the more gruesome the better!” says another person who joins a gang or mercenary operation.

    Does each person find their purpose and satisfaction? Yes. Even if we don’t agree with another person’s life choices, they are theirs to make.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Well said, Tamara. I suppose some individuals hold on to one and only one answer to the meaning of their life for as long as they live. I wonder, though, if they will miss whatever lessons they would be better off learning over time. I’m not here to say which ones. That, as you say, would be quite variable. This raises a separate question: do any of us ever learn all that we might to benefit ourselves and our fellow men? For myself, I hope the learning never stops.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a beautiful essay! It says as much about the meaning of life as the specifics it contains because you are still mulling over the questions of yesterday and yesteryear and coming up with answers!

    I love, “Gathering understanding just for itself is as satisfactory a solution to the question of life’s meaning as I can imagine. We are, after all, creatures who spend our lives discovering more about the world.”

    Right! And I feel so grateful that you are in my orbit so that when you write about what you’ve learned, I learn too. Thank you, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are welcome, Wynne, and the same goes back from me to reading and listening to your work! You exhibit the first steps any educated person must take to learn, curiosity and humility no matter what we think we learned and what we think we know.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Dr. Stein, you put so much thought into your blog posts and also the pictures you select, too! I love it all!

    That biblical reference from Ecclesiastes is one that stuck in my memory from years ago, when I used to just read the bible for hours on end on my own. I felt the weight of that as I learned more in college, and as I learned more than I wanted to about politics lately, and as I learned the hard way about why I need to eat healthier and watch my cholesterol. I learned some things about relationships, and I learned more about myself. I became more self-aware, but I also became more grounded and thus aware of others and my surroundings. Learning isn’t always easy, isn’t always an “aha moment,” isn’t always an enlightening path toward nirvana, isn’t always rewarded, and certainly isn’t always pain-free. Learning can be fun, but it can be cruel, too. Learning can even be traumatic.

    Every person’s path differs.

    It interesting how we base our beliefs, practices, and daily rituals on what we’ve learned throughout our lifespan. And yet, we can only hypothesize what is beyond death, that stage that everyone inevitably visits. All we know is what us living feel like when someone we care about dies. We don’t know what is in the beyond, if there is anything at all. We can learn about different beliefs, faiths, and religions, or we can choose to learn more about science and hypothesize an end to life as we know it. I don’t know what to believe in, and I find that keeping an opened mind about some things helps me to learn sometimes.

    Your post made me thing about many things.

    Whenever I read that passage in Ecclesiastes, it reminds me of poor Job. It also reminds me of NT stuff, like Peter, Paul, and John. I don’t know much about what other faiths believe in, but I like the wisdom in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Stein! 🙂

    Like

  11. Yes, Job remains a challenge to those who want to think of our creator as an all-good, all-powerful being who, according to the Bible, allows Lucifer to have his way with Job as a non-monetary wager. As you say, Dragon Fly, we face unanswerable questions about the nature of our existence. Thanks for reading Dragon Fly, and for your kind words.

    Like

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