Nicolae Tanase: Dr. Finkelstein, what is the meaning of life?
Michael Finkelstein: I’ve been consciously working on this question since I turned 10. I remember that exact day vividly, and though I wasn’t very old at the time, I began to wonder about our experience of mortality and why we had to die. Indeed, I felt an insistent ticking of the clock from that moment on – pressure to figure it out, or at least, to figure out how to live meaningfully.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the “meaning of life question” can be looked at from two perspectives: the individual and the collective. By examining each and by integrating the two, I feel we get closer to the essence of why the question is so significant. And, this is important, because by themselves, though each question has value, we are lead into an incomplete and limited understanding, as in most either-or scenarios. Instead, since both perspectives exist simultaneously, the ultimate answer to such a universal question must be inclusive of both.
To help understand how this works, I often point to the life of bees. When you look at the colony you can certainly identify the individuals, giving them individual names, such as: Queen, Worker, Drone, and Brood. Yet, we also know that though they exist on this level, each with a role to play, if you will, a life with meaning; in fact, their greater service is to the collective. And that collective, as it turns out, works in service to an even greater one, in this case the ecosystem of the entire planet.
And so are we, as individuals and a collective, the latter in service to something greater. So, we can look at the question from these two perspectives, the individual and the collective. For me, the meaning of life then is about weaving the life of the individual into the life of the collective, in service to the whole. But, there is more to it — we are more significant than the bees.
With our soaring consciousness, we have expansive awareness — awareness of the bees and billions of other life forms and processes that constitute the cosmos. And, awareness of our own mortality, a condition that drives us to this question about meaning. Our role goes well beyond that of any other species on this planet. Indeed, it appears that we are the conscious connection between the Earth and all that lies beyond. Far more than just its physical aspects.
Further, not only does the question burns in our minds, it burns in our bodies, in the form of pain and suffering. Indeed, people often struggle with this reality, going so far as to question the creator about some perverted motive behind it. I understand how that might appear. Clearly, the ultimate answer to the question must also adjudicate the harsh reality of our limited and painful physical lives. After years of study and practice in medicine, as frustrating as it is not to be able to relieve all the suffering I have witnessed, I have come to appreciate how creative those who suffer become. And, it is in this that I surmise the point. We are a manifestation of creation that creates more as a result of the ephemeral nature of the physical body that houses our consciousness.
What do we create? Not so much the technology, nor the temporary remedies that that provides; but something more enduring….our art and expressions of love and faith.
And, this is my understanding, as much as I’d like to eliminate pain and our questioning as to why it exists at all, it seems that it has an essential purpose to the cosmic collective and ultimately the very explanation for our existence itself.
Only through our physical senses, and its inherent fragility, the pain receptors in the flesh and the incessant drumbeat of time running out banging around inside our heads, do we have the urgency to find relief, and in so doing, get creative the way we do. In the end, then, it is not about how much work we do, how good we are or what we learn; but instead, to simply live expressing our love. On a cosmic level that must contribute to the greater (cosmic) evolution that we are an integral part of. And, so, our part, in the big play, is to express our love, through thick and thin, ‘til death do us part.
As I wrote after a meditation about five years ago:
If I were God, I would make a man and a woman;
I would send my love for them into the stars
And pray they became dust.
The dust that will generate new planets
Seeding the soul of new life —
Going beyond my imagination toward my spirit;
The spirit that sings of a future that lies in your heart.
~Michael Finkelstein, MD, FACP, ABIHM, aka The Slow Medicine Doctor®, is the founder and executive director of The Slow Medicine Foundation and is the founder and medical director of SunRaven: The Home of Slow Medicine, a wellness center located on a farm, in Bedford, NY. Dr. Finkelstein is a medical blogger for Doctor Oz, Sharecare, and The Huffington Post; he is the author of Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness, endorsed by Andrew Weil, MD and Mehmet Oz, MD.
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