Last week, I was delighted to receive this Letter from a Middle School Student asking for my thoughts about the meaning of life. My response is below. I think this brings together several elements of my thinking.
It was a pleasure to receive your letter. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the great tradition of letter writing with you.
I share your interest in the meaning of life. In fact, probably most of us ask ourselves about the meaning or purpose of our lives at some point.
I think there probably are three ways to think about this. The first is about the Meaning of Life overall. Questions that fall into this category include: Why is there life at all? What are the origins of life? What happens after we die? What does it mean that we live in a universe where there is life? The second way to think about this is more personal. Questions include: What does my individual life mean? What is my unique purpose? What am I going to do with my “one wild and precious life?,” as the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver put it. The third way is to approach the question as a psychological scientist. Following this, we could ask ourselves how we might measure the perception of meaning in life, in general, and then consider how to perform scientific studies seeking to uncover what predicts the experience of more or less life meaning in a broad group of people.
If your interest is in the third way of thinking about meaning in life, there are some answers, and there is a method for finding more. For instance, having close relationships is a pretty strong predictor of life meaning. However, in reading your letter, I have the sense you’re probably most interested in either the first or the second way of thinking, and I think both of those are beyond the scope of science. I resonate with your desire to “know the real answer,” but I’m afraid no one will be able to answer that, except maybe you.
Personally, I believe we each answer the question of life’s meaning or purpose for ourselves by the lives we live. To paraphrase the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, “let your life speak” the answer. When I personally think about the difficult times we live in now – and the major threats of climate change, prejudice and violence across groups, and increasing tribalism in our country, to name a few – I personally meditate a lot about a verse in the Bible (Micah 6:8), as well as the following Talmudic teaching based on it: “Do not be daunted by the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I ask myself frequently: How can I act justly in a way that increases equal opportunity for all? How can I act with compassion without minimizing individuals’ personal responsibility? How can I walk humbly, recognizing that I am human, living in a world pervaded by Great Mystery, beauty, and awe?
You live in Illinois and I live in Minnesota so, although I would love to come to your class, I don’t think that will be possible. I might be up for a Skype, if I can figure the technology out.
I hope you’ll write back your thoughts.