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 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.

Can You Hear the Loss of Silence?

It was a day in the summer-like early autumn. The morning sun of the backyard sent me an invitation to step outside. Sometimes I meditate there instead of reading. But a “nothing” that was “something” arrested my attention.


The once commonplace ambiance startled me. Daytime silence has become a strange occurrence.

Living in Chicago as a child of the ’50s, silence created the background for the first daylight hours. My family lived on a side street in the West Rogers Park area. Talman Avenue led nowhere in particular, nowhere of importance.  Cars parked on either side of the single lane, one-way thoroughfare. Little traffic passed through.

Their movement wasn’t rapid, and horns remained muted most of the time. Bicycles traveled on the sidewalk only, but we didn’t need them to walk to school. Most kids came home from Jamieson elementary school for lunch. Nor did the small shops in the area require automobiles to get to work or visit. Buses did the job your feet didn’t, along with their connections to more distant elevated trains if needed.

Libraries were still, too. We respected the librarian’s unstated role as a pseudo police officer. Conversation didn’t occur unless you needed help to find a book. The dear lady in charge enforced the atmosphere by her presence and the readers’ ingrained discipline. The woman ruled but not as a ruler.

Jet aircraft rarely flew overhead. A plane flight was unusual. I didn’t take one until college, by then on a jet.

Propeller planes moved in discrete slow motion and one at a time, so it seemed. Only skywriters, a dying method of advertising, claimed exceptional attention.

The neighborhood offered modest two-flat residences and newer single-family homes, though not many of these.

Lawnmowers depended on boys and men muscling up to the task of pushing and pulling. Winter in the neighborhood insisted on snow shovels, no plows or blowers.

No one thought these conditions exceptional. It was the way we lived, and nothing about that mode of living changed until after I finished 12th grade, maybe later.

Of course, on the recent day I mentioned, birds engaged in conversations and announcements. No electric or gas-powered mowers did their dirty work of beautification. Trains couldn’t be heard in the distance, though a low-pitched drone of human movement came from a few blocks away and its four-lane street.

Skyscraping jets sped elsewhere, not overhead. I tried not to think about any of this and enjoyed the tranquility while it lasted.

Ah, but the moment disappeared too soon. Employees of multiple lawn services disturbed my reverie, making a simultaneous assault with riding mowers as their weapons. The O’Hare airport flight path altered too, with the up top passenger travel bringing war between the grasscutters and the skywaymen to dominate everyone’s ears.

All this is common in a summertime town 26 miles from Chicago and 18 miles from the airfield. They call it progress.

I left the yard for the quieter inside, an artificial thing but better than the punishment.

I realize more distant places are quieter most of the time. Moving to such spots, of course, brings losses too. Many restaurants, theaters, and museums exist only in imposing cities. The distance from my children, grandchildren, and friends would establish a further cost.

I sometimes think about those much younger than I am, those in a metropolis which never allowed any period of prolonged outdoor quiet except perhaps at night, if they were lucky. Nor did the inhabitants enjoy the once blue and true everyday sky. They don’t know what they missed.

When walking in any heavily trafficked, citified downtown, one notices young people wearing headsets or earbuds. These luxuries keep external noises out by topping them, superimposing voices to outshout twenty-first-century loudness with sounds more pleasing.

I imagine there would be no persuading the youthful ones of what has disappeared, that is, creating my emotional response to a vanished time. One day, however, those kids will make hearing aid manufacturers rich. Then they will know something similar.

For recognition of a change, one must watch and listen for the incremental theft. Like all the things we lose, the loss is informative of the person’s value, environment, opportunity, or freedom one used to have.

Youth and beauty are like that: temporary. What is customary is taken for granted. A shame we must learn this way.

I sometimes wonder if the silence fled with the honeybees, monarch butterflies, and houseflies. Weren’t they supposed to say thank you and shake my hand first? Rudeness, I guess.

Keep your eyes and ears open, then. Life is a precious thing with no guarantee of a second chance. You can think of what I’ve said as a dark perspective, but I hope you focus on what remains in the world, the better to enjoy and save all that is marvelous.

Make the most of all your senses and your possibilities. Keep the world a habitable place, one that offers kindly invitations from the sun, the moon, and the stars; the wind in the trees, and the birds and the bees.

If you decline such invitations, you won’t continue to get invited to their party.

Reclaim the best of the world while disposing of the worst for yourself and others. Maybe that’s the meaning of life.


All of the photos are those of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

The first offers Butterflies at the Chicago Botanic Garden in September of 2020. Next comes a photo taken Outside Moab in September 2021. The last picture displays the Slot Canyons Enroute to Lake Powell.

Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

A murder of sorts happens every day. You’ve seen it, but didn’t think to make a police report.

Remember the day at the lake? Or was it the ocean? You thought you watched the sunset.


The invisible hands of the water pulled the yellow ball down, inch by inch. The flaming star drowned. The day was done and done for.

The world departs us without even a goodbye note. Well, you might say, the sun will rise tomorrow and you’d be right. Other things, different types of disappearances, are less predictable. A final meal with a parent or friend that seemed routine when it happened. The last conversation with a comforting voice. A live recital by a musician you won’t hear again. In the moment you don’t realize the “next time” is an idea about to be defeated by fate, but some day you’ll say, “Oh, that was the last time, wasn’t it …”

No, it’s not so serious. The old buddy might still be out there. The pianist is yet performing, but no longer at his artistic peak. Best not to go to his next concert, you say. Better to remember him at the height of his perfection. Some folks — athletes and actors, singers and trapeze artists — stay on stage too long. Of course the latter reside above the stage, but you get what I mean.

Last times happen because we cannot hold the globe still any more than we can stop a bull stampede.

Reading The Night Before Christmas to your little ones becomes a swan song, too. I loved my two charming girls cuddled around me on the eve of the once-a-year gift-athon. What they thought or felt I can’t be sure. Perhaps enjoying the ritual, my voice, and the closeness; but impatient to fall asleep, the better to jump over the nighttime to the morning.

As the years passed I’m pretty sure this habit of December 24th came to mean more to me than to my little sweeties, by then less little. I found uttering the words ever more touching. The girls were getting to an age when such things wouldn’t fit: the end of their childhood and a passageway leading to one fewer intersection of our lives.

I can’t tell you when we laid to rest the pre-holiday custom, but whatever the year, it was one of those things about which I am philosophical. Life can’t be freeze-dried, tiny creatures kept small in perpetuity. Put the flight of this ritual under the heading “a small price to pay for their growth and maturity; their flourishing.”

Thursday night, though, came an encore. The unremarkable routine of baby sitting at my youngest’s house offered no foreshadowing. Bedtime approached and with it the three books my grandson’s mom put next to the recliner in his room, his invitation to dreamland.

My boy responds to the drill as well as I do. He sits in my lap after we put on his pajamas and, once the recitation ends, gets tucked in.

How lengthy he’s gotten! He no longer fits snug in my lap. Remind me to buy a larger-sized space between my chin and my knees. Soon this three-year-old — long-limbed for his limited span of years — will be too big for this position.

I was about to pick up the first book when I spotted the title: The Night Before Christmas.

My eyes moistened, but I plunged in. He’d heard it before, but not from me. I’m an animated reader, so I gave the job passion: speeding up, slowing down; some parts louder, others softer. A performance.

The tear that started at the start made its way down my right cheek by the finish. I wiped the dew away and turned the mute printed words of the other two children’s stories into sound. Afterward my parents’ great grandchild scrambled into his bed, I kissed him, and we exchanged the words “I love you.” Once the lights were dimmed I left the room.

There have been moments in my life in imitation of eternity. Maybe they are eternity if you fully inhabit them, lose yourself, forget the hourglass and the daily sunset. Reciting this verse to my progeny makes me immortal for the few minutes it takes.

The man I am is well-past thinking money is the solution to anyone’s troubled soul, outside of purchasing necessities. I am incapable of religious faith, never my strong suit. I am done asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”

As a young man I wondered and wondered.

Choose your own meaning or no meaning, but for me I’ve never come up with a more pleasing one than revisiting The Night Before Christmas with my children; and now the first male in my parents’ genetic line since my brother Jack. So long as I can do that, the sun will hover in the sky, the flaming thing keeping all my loves warm, safely beyond the water’s reach.

The idea of a river drowning the sun was borrowed from Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694. The top photo is a Sunset from Zebulun Beach, Herzliya, Israel. The photographer is RonAlmog. The last picture is the work of Maureen Boyle: Freya’s Golden Tears in the Style of Gustav Klimt. Both the sunset and the Boyle were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Lists We Keep and the Meaning of Life


“Everyone has a list and everyone is on someone’s list.” I heard this from a musician, speaking of himself and his 100 orchestral colleagues. The statement reminded me of the 1971 “Enemies List” kept by President Richard Nixon’s assistant Charles Colson, naming Nixon’s biggest political and public opponents. He even included the movie actor Paul Newman. I suspect, however, those of us who make lists like this don’t actually intend to meddle and damage other lives, as Nixon did by means of Internal Revenue Service audits and the like. Fortunately, the IRS Commissioner Donald C. Alexander refused to do the President’s dirty-work.

Our catalogues of people and things are usually more benign. Here are a few:

  • Shopping lists.
  • To-do lists.
  • Bucket lists. I always wonder about this one. Postponing gratification is useful to get ahead in life, but assumes there will be life ahead, and the kind of health permitting joy in the delayed experiences. Anyone over 50 will tell you not to postpone too many activities. The things of youth belong to their time. Any athlete past his prime can affirm this. Down the road, the bucket springs some leaks and will not hold the treats we put in it.
  • Lists of lovers. I recall a conversation with an old friend and somehow it came up that he’d slept with about 50 women in his long life. He wasn’t bragging, but his production of a number suggests he counted them. In fact, in the opera Don Giovanni (Don Juan) by Mozart, the composer gave us something called “The Catalogue Aria,” sung by his servant Leporello. Here is how it begins:

My dear lady, this is the list
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.

In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three …

I leave it to the reader to come up with the proper (?) response to this.

  • Lists of medications. The tally is created by older people, of necessity, because new specialist physicians need to avoid prescribing drugs likely to produce a dangerous interaction with those already in the system.
  • Lists of jobs (a résumé).
  • Lists of publications. Academics are judged by their number of writings, the excellence of the journals or books in which they appear, and the extent to which their work generates further scholarship from other authors and researchers.
  • “Ten best” lists. News and entertainment media enjoy ranking athletes, movie stars, and places to go. Of course, you can make your own.
  • Lists of employees, those who sign up for a course, etc.
  • A catalogue of life unfairness and injury. Those who routinely recite these (we all know at least one such friend) is someone whose presence can only occasionally be tolerated.
  • A similar list of grudges.
  • A short list of regrets — the big ones. Some of us keep circling our thoughts back to a handful of actions we ought to have done or not done. Interestingly, research suggests men are more likely to kick themselves about the chances they didn’t take with the fair sex (the woman not pursued, the opportunities bypassed), while the ladies reflect on relationships they chose with the wrong men.
  • Lists of things for which we are grateful. Not everyone has a list of this kind, but the benefits can be considerable if you review and remember the items.
  • Mental lists of subjects to talk about on a date. Young men often create these for fear of running out of topics of conversation.
  • The things you can’t do anymore and the parts that hurt. Older folks, without much pressure, can tell you and tell you — and tell you.

Lists tend to fall into categories. Those that are practical and helpful (to-do and grocery), achievement (publications and lovers, the latter if you are a braggart), tales of woe (the times you’ve been dumped and jobs lost), etc.

We probably are better off with fewer lists, other than those involving gratitude or producing a sense of fulfillment. List making, beyond what is necessary, doesn’t get you too engaged in the world in front of you, unless it includes actions you intend and a plan to carry them out. You need a method for your new year’s resolution madness, for sure.

Holding grudges doesn’t make you feel better, while creating a list of conversations topics for a date might. Remember, past a certain indeterminate age, we tend to enjoy telling stories about good old days. The best advice, perhaps, is to experience as many of those days as you can, not only to enjoy them in the moment, but bank them for fond remembrance later.

We often look for a cognitive lightning bolt, an epiphany, or a turning point to change our lives: “If only I do this or try that, then I will be transformed and fulfilled.” Or maybe you say, “These five things are what I need,” as if the check-offs on your list are both necessary and sufficient — a guarantee of happiness. Ah, but perhaps you will think of one more to achieve and then one more still when the last one is done. There is no end to the number of awards to attain, money to bank, and places to see.

I wonder if sometimes we miss the simplest things, forgetting to put them on the paper with the tangible wish list. Our feverish pursuit of goals — intent upon grasping and holding each one we touch — suggests a permanence not present in life. We believe once we grab them they will assuage all discontent. Are we like dazed and thirsty souls in the desert who see an oasis ahead, not recognizing it is a mirage instead?

Meanwhile, those simplest things cost us nothing and bestow what we all want: to live well. Yet they are easily lost in the overheated tumult of life and the mind-numbing routine of the day.

As Jack Palance said to Billy Crystal in the 1991 movie City Slickers, the secret of happiness (if there is one) all comes down to “one thing.”

What is that “one thing?” Watch:

What Would You Give For Your Heart’s Desire?

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt OSA211

What is precious to you? What do you want to get or to see or to do? What would you give for love, glory, money, or time?

Anything? Well, here is a little game to play. It won’t take long. Or, I should say, it will take no longer than you want it to.

What would you give for any item on this list? The form of payment is, in most cases, up to you. Perhaps you would beg or borrow or steal to get your heart’s desire. But the “payment” must be equal to the value that you assign to the thing you want.

Choose wisely!

  1. A ticket in the best possible location for your favorite team’s championship game.
  2. Being able to relive the best day of your life.
  3. A cure for cancer available to the whole world.
  4. A day in the body of the person you’d most like to be, with all the abilities of that person.
  5. One less year in your life with the guarantee that you would be the wealthiest individual on earth for all the remaining years.
  6. To be sexually irresistible to those you most desire.
  7. A change in the one physical feature you like least about yourself.
  8. World peace.
  9. The health of those you love.
  10. The love of the person from whom you most wish it, whether it be a romantic partner or a parent or a sibling or a child.
  11. Contentment. That is, perfect acceptance of whatever is your situation in life.
  12. Freedom from your conscience.
  13. A definitive answer as to whether heaven exists and what it consists of, if it does exist.
  14. Immortality (in this life) in a body that would never age beyond the age you wish.
  15. A chance to do one thing over — go back to that moment with all you now know and try again.
  16. The infallible insight as to whether people are telling the truth; to see through every deception, no matter how big or small. Tough Choice
  17. The ability to do one thing you can’t do any more.
  18. The gift of living in the moment.
  19. Fame.
  20. The ability to remember every second of every day of your life.
  21. The capacity to forget anything that you wish to set aside in your past.
  22. The talent to produce at least one masterpiece of art, music, or literature.
  23. Great recognition during your lifetime that will not endure after it ends; or recognition that will come only posthumously.
  24. To be the best possible parent.
  25. To have a job that you can’t wait to get to each morning; one that produces complete fulfillment in doing the work itself, not because of what you produce or the compensation or recognition you receive for it.
  26. To be the author of a great scientific discovery.
  27. A life that allows you to see all of the most beautiful places in the world.
  28. The gift of being a great teacher.
  29. Loyal and loving friends.
  30. A partner who provides you with the most sexually satisfying times imaginable for as long as you both live.
  31. The experience of living in a drug induced state of fantasy, such that you would have the imaginary experience of anything your mind could envision, even though none of it would be real.
  32. The knowledge, in the last possible moment of your life, that you have followed the path suggested in Micah 6:8: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

As you might have noticed, some of these things may actually be available to you at no cost; other than effort and, perhaps, a bit of luck. But, many of them are mutually exclusive, as you’ve probably also observed: you can’t have them all.

Life is a little like a birthday card I’ve seen. On the front it shows a picture of a beautiful woman:


And then, a picture of a birthday cake. It reads something like this: “This is Edith and this is your cake. You have to choose one, because…”


“You can’t have your cake and Edith, too!”

The top painting is a detail from The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. The second image represents a Tough Choice; the third is a photo called Birthday Cake by Francesca Cesa Bianchi, Milan, 2002. The last of these was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A World Without Heaven

What would a world be like without the “idea” of heaven? How would people behave? What would they live for?

Of course, it is not as if the world that we live in, where the notion of an afterlife or some form of continuing existence is prevalent, is perfect. No, there are lots of wars and disagreements in contemporary life. But perhaps we are able to escape a sense of desperation in the belief that modern medicine, prudent behavior, and the possibility of an afterlife will allow us to continue our existence for a while at least, and perhaps permanently.

The ancient, pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not so easily apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of a heaven of the type that Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as the Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited. So if we want to know how men live when the notion of heaven doesn’t exist, we might well look to these people.

Remember too, that the life of the pre-literate Greeks (the Greek alphabet is thought to have come into existence somewhere around 800 B.C.) was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American lived only about 50 years. The brevity of life was certainly known to the ancient Greeks.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated men. (And I speak of men, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged in that period, seen as having almost no function or status other than for sex, companionship, rearing children, and domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things–the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) is another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world without heaven? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of having the fearlessness, strength, and tenacity to carry out that accumulation via battle; sufficiently so that people would (sometimes literally) sing your praises after you were dead.

As I mentioned, today’s world doesn’t strike me as much different from yesterday’s on the point of achieving honor, although we are a little more discreet about our sexual conquests and have largely risen above keeping slaves. On the subject of glory, however, we seem to do everything we can to avoid death, which in the ancient Greek world was the only path to glory; a path that required both risking one’s own death on the battle field and inflicting it on others in the same place. So, whether you believe in heaven or not, it would seem that the “idea” of heaven has had some civilizing effect. There are, after all, more ways of getting to heaven in our cosmology than killing people, despite what some terrorist/martyrs might tell us.

To me what is important here, apart from the question of a civilizing effect of a particular religious concept, is the human need to conquer death as revealed in the heritage that the pre-literate Greeks have bequeathed us and, of course, in our own religious behavior. Both the ancient Greeks and most of us seem to hope that when we breathe our last, we are not finished forever. It is not a new idea, even if our solutions to the dilemma of mortality are (in part) different from those of our ancestors.

Unless, of course, you are such a brave soul that you have dispensed with the idea that you will live on in any form much beyond the time of your earthly demise: not in words or writings, not in great buildings that bear your name, not in photos or videos, not in businesses or charities or foundations that survive you, not in the students you have taught, not in your artistic creations or inventions, not in visits to your grave site, not in making the world a better place for those who succeed you; not in the biological output of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who continue your genetic line.

Clearly, it is pretty hard to give up the idea of glory, some sort of posterity–the hope for an afterlife–isn’t it?

(Footnote: this essay was prompted by rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for the first time in many years, and by listening to the lecture series The Iliad of Homer by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland. This course and many others are offered by The Teaching Company. Professor Vandiver is a wonderful instructor and I have relied heavily on her discussion of honor and glory in the pre-literate Greek world in this essay. I can strongly recommend courses sold by The Teaching Company. I should say, however, that I am in no way affiliated with that organization or benefit from any purchases from them that you might make; I’m simply a satisfied customer).

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Last Words: Be Careful What You Say

We tend to think of last words in terms of famous quotations. On her death-bed, Gertrude Stein (no relation to me) was asked, “What is the answer (to the meaning of life)?” Her matter of fact response was “What is the question?”

John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in the belief that “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying. What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had in fact predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th.

On a less ironic note, students of American history will recall the story of Nathan Hale, captured and convicted of spying on the British during the Revolutionary War. “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country,” uttered Hale before his execution. More locally, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day with a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. The father of legendary musician and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini gathered his family around his death-bed to remind them that the word love, “amore,” should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the word “love,” the words “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the every end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

Last words of our parents tend to linger in the memory. We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of injuring a loved one in what proves to be their last possible moment.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mother’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary Hall of Shame of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “You deserve to die.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing rational argument that his death was not produced by his son’s words (or, at least, that the killing heart attack was waiting for whatever the next stressor was and would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger), it is easy to imagine that the sense of guilt would be lasting.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents. To say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it); and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for any real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that the mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible.

Better, though, so much better to live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is, “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps its no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Giulini’s father’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

The 1935 photo of Gertrude Stein is the work of Carl Van Vechten, from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.