Time and again, humans have always wrestled unceasingly on the significance or meaning of life. Pardon the triteness, but it behooves re-asking: What really makes life meaningful or worth living?
Here are two “meaningful” stories, from which I believe we can draw some profound lessons or insights on the “meaning of life.”
Story 1: Cosmology professor on life’s meaning
In his book “Cosmogenesis,” Brian Thomas Swimme, professor of Cosmology at CIIS (California), recounts how he answered his student’s question, “What’s the meaning of life?”
Despite finding the question quite odd (since “science doesn’t deal with meaning”), Swimme gave a lengthy but insightful answer, which I have paraphrased, thus:
“Almost none of us knew our true identity. We thought of ourselves as Americans or Chinese, as Republicans or Democrats, as believers or atheists. Each of those identities might be true, but each is secondary truth. There is a deeper truth. We are universe. The universe made us. In a most primordial way, we are cosmological beings.
“To take this in, you need to ride inside the mathematical symbols. Begin with the primal light discovered in 1964 by Penzias and Wilson. This light, this cosmic microwave background radiation, arrives here from all directions. We know that each of these photons comes from a place near the origin of the cosmos, so if we trace these particles of light backward, we are led to the birthplace of the universe. Which means, since this light comes from all directions, that we have discovered our origin in a COLOSSAL SPHERE OF LIGHT (underscoring mine).
“This colossal sphere, 14 billion light-years away from us in every direction, is the origin of our universe. Thus the origin of each of us…That colossal sphere transformed itself into the stars and galaxies and everything else in the known universe. As this sphere moves forward in time, it evolves under the action of expansion and contraction. That is, as the sphere continues to expand, particular subsets are pulled together via the attraction of gravity. This dual action of expansion and contraction set in motion the creativity that has given rise to every existing entity in the universe.
“If you want to know the meaning of life, look at your hand. Energy flows through your skin and bones without which you would freeze to stone, that flow of energy in your hand came from the beginning of time. Your hand grew out of the colossal sphere like a flower rising up from topsoil. No one in the history of humanity knew that the expansion and contraction of the universe transformed primal atoms into stars and galaxies. Nor did any person know the quantum field theory and the general theory of relativity that govern this sphere of light. None of the sages or kings had the slightest notion of any of this, but now we know the mathematical dynamics by which the universe brought itself forth. Those SAME DYNAMICS ARE COURSING THROUGH US. THE UNIVERSE’S CREATIVITY IS HAPPENING NOW (underscoring mine). The exact same dynamics are at work. Our bodies churn with creativity rooted in the beginning of time…I was the colossal sphere. All of us were. We were rooted in the cosmic microwave radiation. We were the primal atoms speaking of our 14-billion-year existence.” END OF STORY #1.
In gist, the meaning of life, according to Swimme, is based on the scientific truth that WE are a 14-billion-years old colossal sphere; we are the “universe’s creativity at work” then in the beginning of time as now; we are “universe” or cosmological beings; and that the whole of life, of us, of the universe is an amazing creative or intelligent design – then as now.
Story 2: The Mexican Fisherman and the Investment Banker
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”
The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s needs. The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed. “I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you,”’ he said. “You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, and eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middle-man, you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening up your own cannery. You could control the product, processing, and distribution,” he said. “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually to New York, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?” To which the American replied, “Oh, 15 to 20 years or so.” “But what then?” asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right, you would announce an IPO, and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?” the Mexican asked further.
The American said, “Then you could retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.” END OF STORY #2.
In story #2, it can be gleaned, from the point-of-view of the Mexican fisherman, life’s meaning is simple (unless you want it to be complicated): “Working just enough and spending time with the people he loved most.” Unlike the American investment banker, life for the Mexican fisherman is NOT striving hard or chasing for the big things but simply living his dream.
Now, juxtaposing the two stories, let me try to elicit its comparative inferences about the meaning of life.
Whereas the first story pegs life’s meaning on unravelling (of course, I’m not discrediting its loftiness) the “big mysteries” of the universe, the second story readily proffers a modest one – which is, simply living what we’re happy about.
While story #1 looks for meaning in the origins of the universe or the intricate mysteries of life, story #2 finds meaning in being content and happy with what we have in the present moment.
I’d like to infer though that both stories acknowledge the significance or sensibleness of life. But I’m impelled to quip that, verily, life is not a “problem to be solved,” but a magnificent and ever-dynamic mystery to embrace and live.
In sum, it’s worth sharing how psychologists Frank Martela and Michael Steger (The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016) defined “meaning of life” according to three elements:
1. Coherence: how events fit together, or understanding that things in life happen for a reason – and, for Christians, “according to the intelligent or coherent plan of God.”
2. Purpose: the existence of goals and aims, or believing that we are alive in order to do something. From a Christian perspective, the overarching purpose is to “love and serve God and other people.”
3. Significance: life’s inherent value, or the sense that life matters. Again, for us Christians, “life is significant because God loves us.”
And, let me add: Responsibility and Enjoyment (or satisfaction).
We, ourselves, alone are responsible for deciding what kind of life we want to live, and what makes a significant and worthy life goal.
Lastly, we can enjoy a deep sense of significance and satisfaction only when we have exercised our responsibility for self-determination and pursue our cherished life goal.