The Meaning of Life: From the Pages of the Little, Brown Book

By Friend, David; Vitulli, C. J. et al. | Sunset, December 1991 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Life: From the Pages of the Little, Brown Book


Friend, David, Vitulli, C. J., Caldicott, Helen, de Roulet, Leah, Smirnoff, Yakov, Peale, Norman Vincent, Gould, Stephen Jay, Lin, Maya Ying, Sunset


I am not arrogant enough to assume that I know what the meaning of life is. When I contemplate the fact that the universe goes on forever, it is impossible for me to understand. If I think about the endlessness of time, if I think that when I die everything dies with me since everything is only here because I perceive it through my senses; if I spend too long contemplating what the infinity of the universe means--I could literally go mad. So I block those thoughts out.

We kid ourselves. We kid ourselves to make sense out of things. We have to boil the cosmos down to our own very minute frame of reference or sphere of vision. Then we set ourselves up as God because in our scientific quests we start to understand a few of the mechanisms of the life process.

It's still egocentric, but to condense it down to a tiny microcosm: We're here to biologically reproduce, like cats and dogs and bacteria reproduce. Looked at in this way, the meaning of life, for me, has been to give birth to and to love my children. Now, of course, my babies have grown. So for me, today, the meaning of life is nature. For me, the meaning of life is the wallabies and kangaroos hopping around my house, the spectacular parrots. For me, the meaning of life is the wonder of evolution that produces the most extraordinary mix of species of which there are millions on earth and which we are now rapidly destroying. This rather strange species called man is an evolutionary aberrant intent on destroying nature and, therefore, the meaning of life.

Ah, the smell of flowers. I've just put flowers in a vase. The meaning of life is the flowers in the vase.

Helen Caldicott, Australian pediatrician and antinuclear proponent, is founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Almost every day of my life I see people in the process of going from the diagnosis of a dread disease to a terminal stage in that disease. Having encountered so many people facing the end of life, having witnessed them and their loved ones as they've asked, in an urgent and profound way, "What has my life meant?" I feel I have some partial answer to the reason we all exist. I am led to believe that if there is a real purpose for any of us, it is to somehow enhance each other's humanity--to love, to touch others' lives, to put others in touch with basic human emotions, to know that you have made even one life breathe easier because you have lived. By and large, the meaning of a person's life gets distilled to: How well have I loved? A person can then find hope in believing: Somebody loved me and I loved him or her and those memories that my loved one carries forward will shimmer on inside my children and grandchildren and beyond. When I talk to elderly people who are dying, if they have any regrets, they don't worry about their lack of material gainor about having had too little sucess in life. They worry about the kind of things they didn't do and should have done with the people that they loved.

I remember an unmarried teacher who was dying. She realized her life had been rich because, as she told me, "I know I've touched other people's lives and their lives are better for having known me." And there was a merchant seaman dying of gastric cancer that had been diagnosed at a late stage. He regretted that he had never married. But as we talked, he revealed that he had had many friends. He had traveled a lot. In sorting through the riffraff, he was able to find meaning in his life by virtue of the fact that he felt he had instilled a sense of passion for the experience of life within the souls of the people that he had known.

People sometimes ask me how I get through it all. I cry a lot. I love the people, I grieve their loss and I go on to the next one. …

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