(Sounds Like Life To Me by Darryl Worley)

What is the meaning of life? First we should ask, what is the meaning of meaning in this question. Sometimes, the meaning of something is what it refers to, something beyond itself. The meaning of each of our lives is whatever our individual lives refer to. Reference is a contextual affair, and so it is in life, too. The meaning of our particular acts can be explained by reference to goals and conventions (He did that in order to signal a left-hand turn). But can we similarly explain the meaning of our whole lives? When people ask about the meaning of life, however, they often have in mind just such reference to something beyond them, something outside of their lives. They may even be the most important things in life. In despair people come to the conclusion too quickly that life has no meaning at all. It is worth noting that linguists now insist that meaning must be found within the context of language. A word has meaning not just because of its reference but, more important, because of its sense in the language. The meaning of life is to be found in the context of our lives—the sense they make and the sense we give to them—rather than in reference to anything outside of life. Devotion to God answers the question of the meaning of life insofar as one actually lives for God.

The meaning of life is more of a metaphor that is required, an image, a vision of life in which you can see yourself as having a definite role, a set of reasonable expectations, and—what makes this so important—your vision in many ways determines the life you will lead. The meaning of life is not just a matter of discovery but also an important act of creation. Thus, some philosophers who have had a gloomy or pessimistic temperament have willfully formulated rather cheerful and optimistic philosophies, not to deceive themselves but to change themselves, and some of them have succeeded remarkably well. The images we use to talk about life define the meaning we find, or don’t find, in it.

What is the meaning of life? The question is vague and the answers are not always literal truths that can be defended by argument and reason. The question about the meaning of life is most likely to arise in a time of confusion, when we are depressed or when some incident has upset our values and expectations. Life seems crammed full of meanings—there’s a term paper to write, an oil filter in the car to change, a good party to look forward to, the prospect of an important job interview sometime in the next few weeks. But when we begin to think abstractly, it becomes obvious to us that none of these small goals and expectations could possibly count as the meaning of life. And so we look at bigger things—happiness in general, doing well in life, success, influence, love. But then the ominous message of Ecclesiastes hits home: “All is vanity,” and soon to pass away. A key phrase in the book of Ecclesiastes, “under the sun,” describes the world lived on one level, apart from God and without any belief in the afterlife. If you live on that level, you may well conclude that life is meaningless. Ecclesiastes gives some words of hope, including the final summary: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). That’s the positive message, the “lesson” of Ecclesiastes. But such positive words are almost overwhelmed by the author’s powerful negative example. You could summarize his whole life in Jesus’ one statement, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Jules Renald once said, “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to love it more and more.”

Life is what you make out of it. It is a matter of discovery and an act of creation. Life is a learning experience that contains adventures, blessings, and sufferings. Life is full of goals to make and accomplish, expectations to meet. Life is a maze because it can be confusing and fun at the same time. Life may seem like a puzzle, however, as a Christian, I know the picture is suppose to look like a world-wide community of people living in harmony. It is obvious that we live not just moment to moment or for some single great goal, but rather we follow a rather detailed script, a story, a narrative, which to at least some extent we make up as we go along. Our families, culture, and circumstances provide the outlines and our roles. Our plots continue to unfold day by day as we continue developing our characters and personalities through various events throughout our life. We often find ourselves making decisions about our lives using the standards we also use in evaluating literature or a movie: Is it interesting? Is it boring? Does it have enough suspense? Is it in good taste? Is it well timed? Is it carried out dramatically—or overdramatically, “overacted”? Is this action in line with the character of the hero? It is not the end goal or outcome of life that gives life meaning but the quality of the story, the quality with which one lives out and develops his or her role or roles. (Life’s A Dance by John Michael Montgomery)

If life is a game, it is not to be taken so seriously. The significance of the game lies in the playing itself. Some people see games as fiercely competitive, a contest in which you win or lose. It is important to ask what kind of game this life is. Some games are played for fun alone, others are played to prove superiority, others to kill time; some are distinctively social while others are intentionally anxiety producing. Some are aimed at hurting the opponent and some are aimed at helping others. To think of life as a game is to put it in a certain perspective, in order not to take it too seriously, in order to emphasize the importance of obeying the rules and, perhaps, the centrality of being a “good sport,” enjoying oneself, and, if possible, winning.

If life is a tragedy, then it is a serious and unhappy process, punctuated by pleasures, perhaps, but ultimately an inevitable progression of a tragic plot that can have only one end. To live well in this view means to play one’s tragic role well—to bear it heroically, perhaps making some grand soliloquies along the way. Laughter is too often ignored as an essential ingredient in life, perhaps even as the essential ingredient in the good life. The sixteenth-century Dutch philosopher, Erasmus, called for a celebration of human foolishness and Nietzsche taught that we should not be so serious, but instead enjoy laughter and enthusiasm. Absurdity in a humorous sense is found in a story of ambition and frustration, desire and disappointment. Tragedy and comedy can be combined in irony of the meaning of life. In the movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, the old man played by Walter Huston, has lost everything, but he breaks out in uproarious laughter and encourages the others to do the same. It provides the only possible “happy ending” to a story of greed, disappointment, and death. It is hard to deny that all of us could use a little more humor, not so much in our lives (television provides more than enough of that) but about our lives, in the way we see our own faults and weaknesses.

The meaning of life as Art was urged by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as he stated, “Live your life as a work of art.” He did not have a story in mind but more an art like sculpture, in which one lives by creating a shape for oneself, “building character,” developing what we call “style.” The German philosopher Friedrich Von Schelling saw the whole of life as God’s work of art. We are in effect God’s apprentices. The ideal of this view is appropriately to live beautifully or, if that is not possible, to live at least with style, “with class” we might say. From this view, life is to be evaluated as an artwork—as moving, inspiring, well designed, dramatic, or colorful, or as clumsy, uninspired and uninspiring, or easily forgettable. Life as a story, life as art—these are inspiring images, but the virtues of life then become the virtues of literature or sculpture: their shape and timing, their appeal to onlookers. There is also the thrill of living “to the fullest,” taking chances, enjoying challenge and the rush of adrenaline, seeing life as an adventure provides that sense of skill and uncertainty. But for those who see life this way, there may be no other way to live because everything else is boring and tedious. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths—a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life…Even Socrates was tired of it. A common image is the view of life as a learning experience because it is satisfying for its own sake. Some people feel compelled to experience as much as possible, to try everything at least once, just in order to know what it is like. For them, living life to the fullest means doing everything. But notice that the same expression means something very different from other viewpoints: the person who sees life as a mission lives life to the fullest by taking every opportunity to carry out his or her mission and the person who sees life as tragedy takes that phrase to mean to suffer dramatically. A popular metaphor today is that life is a growth experience and that living is a matter of developing your human potential. (Life Is Good by Jacob Young)

Life viewed as tragedy has a sense of grandeur about it; life viewed as a disease is rather pathetic. Sigmund Freud, for example, said that “the goal of all life is death,” a view that has been around since ancient times. Norman O. Brown wrote that “man is a disease,” and in the early 1980s, a large number of books were published describing the “disease” of modern life, of Western civilization, of capitalism, and so on. But to be “sick” presupposes some sense of what it is to be well, and the all-important question for anyone who uses this metaphor is: what would count as a healthy life? Immortality? A life of antlike social productivity? A life of unblemished happiness? From a Christian perspective, there is truth within the disease metaphor as we are born into this world in sin. In spite of our natural life being a “disease” of sorts, we can have Joy through Jesus Christ, to live our lives in love that was first given to us from God that we have the ability to return love to God and for God to others as ourselves.

Because we live in a society in which business plays such a major role, it is natural that we should sometimes think of life as business. To think of life this way is to think of the years of our lives as so much capital, which we invest in various enterprises—a career, a particular school, marriage, and children—to get a certain return. What it is that is returned is never all that clear. The actual money a person earns in life and the estate he or she accumulates as a test of success. A moment’s reflection, however is measured by what one has at the end, there is a very real question about how this, rather than the activity of living itself, is the meaning of life. We are born into this world with nothing and we shall leave this world with nothing. In 1 Timothy 6:9, we read, “Those who are eager to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into numerous thoughtless and hurtful cravings that plunge people into destruction and ruin.”

We can have this vision of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain only to have it fall back again and look at life as just one repetition after another, ultimately adding up to nothing. We spend half our lives in school, working hard to get into the career we dreamed of, and then when the time comes around to just enjoy life, we find that we are too old to enjoy it. Camus thought that Sisyphus’s life was meaningful, despite the absurdity of his task, because he reacted to his frustration with a kind of defiance. The view of life as desire is often coupled with the Sisyphus myth of life as constant frustration. The Greek allegory in this case is Tantalus (from whose name we get the word tantalizing), who was condemned by the gods to be tied just out of reach of a bunch of grapes; he spent all eternity reaching for the fruit, but he never managed to get any. Our desires are ultimately irrational and pointless.

The answer that Arthur Schopenhauer proposes is detachment through either aesthetic contemplation or ascetic self-denial. Stoicism teaches that most of our passions are irrational and are best ignored through the detached wisdom of reason. The modern version of this story is Faust, who lived for his desires; when one was satisfied, another immediately replaced it. The image of life is that of continuous wanting, one thing after another, with no end in sight and it becomes the focus of life. This is a life of desire after desire, in which nothing is ever ultimately satisfying. It is desire, as well as the satisfaction of desire, that gives life meaning. Not to desire, on the other hand, is to be already dead. The opposite view of life as desire is life as not desiring, the overcoming of desire. Freud called this the “constancy principle” in his early psychoanalytic works, the “nirvana principle” later on. In his view, the goal of life is to attain as restful a state as possible, without tension or desire. The word nirvana comes from Buddhism and means “extinguish” in Sanskrit; the goal of Buddhism is to loosen the hold of our desires and reach a state of tranquility in which nothing bothers us. In Western philosophy, the sense of peace is sometimes promoted as the goal of philosophical activity or contemplation (unperturbed learning and thinking). We find in Romans 5:1-5, “Since then, we have been pronounced righteous through faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also obtain through faith entrance to this grace in which we stand firm, and rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. Not this alone, but we glory in afflictions as well; for we know that affliction produces patience, and patience develops in a tried character, and character begets hope, such hope as does not disappoint; for God’s love is poured out into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

There is the concept of seeing life as a mission, that is, to live by an example. Christianity has often taught that life is a mission, the mission being to get others into a whole new identity in Christ. Altruism is acting for the benefit of others, even if there is no benefit whatsoever to oneself. Some people see themselves as being here on earth to help others less fortunate than they are. This is a view that contains a definite sense of mission, as well as quite clear-cut views of success and failure and of what ought to be done. For some people, life as altruism is a one-way enterprise; they help others in order to give their own lives meaning, but they expect nothing in return. Life as honor is a concept that has changed over time, but for the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, for instance, life was essentially a matter of living up to the expectations of your community, of proving yourself in battle, and of not disgracing yourself in any way. We have a sense of duty, and many people would say that, whatever else, the meaning of life is doing your duty—to God, country, family, friends, and employer. (What If I Give All by Ray Boltz)

It has been obvious to many people that the most important thing in their lives, and what give their lives meaning, is human relationship. The proof of this is found with the popularity of such websites of online networks such as Myspace and Facebook. Thus, people say that what really counts in life is friendship or the most important thing in life is love. Indeed, much of our language about “relationships” presents us with this unflattering picture of two lonely souls trying to “get through” to one another, trying to “communicate” or “break down the barriers.” But then, on the other hand, there is a much more inspiring picture of all of us already connected. In this view, it is the distance between us, not intimacy, that is the aberration. The meaning of our lives is our network of relations with other people; ideally, the meaning of life is love. 1 John 2:15-17 indicates, “Neither love the world nor the things in the world. Whoever loves the world has not the Father’s love in his heart, because everything in the world, the passions of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the proud display of life have their origin not from the Father but from the world. And the world with its lust passes away but he who does the will of God remains for ever.” In Luke 10:25-28 we read, “Now a certain teacher of the Law got up to put Him to a thorough test. He asked, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asked him, ‘what is written in the law? How do you read it?’ The teacher of the Law answered, ‘You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole strength and your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus told him, ‘you have answered correctly, do this and you will live.” (Let Us Love by Needtobreathe)