Patricia Ryan Madson: The Meaning of Life and Joining the Chain of Givers

I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world.

Trinka's Nice SmileWhat is the Meaning of Life?

Meaning is a concept that humans have created. We give meaning to behavior or events. Do plants or animals have “meaning?’ However the question is a worthy one. Allow me to revise it: “What is the purpose of life?”

The purpose of life is to uncover and execute the purpose of life. For me that purpose has been to learn that life is an unfathomable gift. Each of us is the recipient of countless gifts moment by moment. And, one of the ways to understand these countless gifts is to count them. I first encountered this through a Japanese practice called Naikan.

Take a breath, look around and begin to innumerate what you are receiving at this moment. The wind cools me as I sit on the porch on a comfortable chair designed and fabricated by people I’ve never met. This computer assists me in gathering and storing these words compliments of a word processor that corrects my spelling and saves these thoughts. Someone spent great effort to create and execute this technology. Right now an electric oven is cooking potatoes to nourish me for lunch. Farmers planted and harvested these potatoes. In the distance I hear a foghorn that signals location for fisherman and boaters on the ocean nearby. A fleece blouse keeps me warm and fashionable. This blouse has a chain of makers and movers who brought it to me in the mail. People working in the Social Security Administration who sent me a check this month have allowed me to pay for this blouse.

I believe that the purpose of life is to come to know the myth of the “self made person.” No one has ever ‘done it on her own.’ Every human continues to live thanks to the efforts of others who make things and do things that support life.

Once I began to see this realistically I was moved to join this chain of givers in contributing something back that is useful or helpful. I can never repay all of those who create the conditions of life, but I can do a small part in giving something back to the world. I can use my daily calories to either contribute to the solution, or if I am mindless to the problem.

The Dalai Lama wrote: The True Meaning of Life: “We are visitors on this planet. We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most. During this period, we must try to do something good, something useful, with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”


~Patricia Ryan Madson, author, professor Emerita from Stanford University.

Copyright © 2015 Excellence Reporter

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