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.