I’m pretty sure I knew the answer when I was in college. It was the late 80s and I forged my opinion on this and other essential questions during those clichéd late night conversations with dorm mates. The philosophy types had their expositions on truth, reason, and existence. The social justice warriors argued for selflessness and service. The economists and policy wonks explained how things actually work. The Ayn Rand devotees proselytized self-interest, and left a copy of The Fountainhead on the floor when we all called it a night. The artists didn’t even seem to speak the same language as the rest of us. Then there were the gentle, quiet types who weren’t trying to be right about anything and didn’t take sides; they just seemed to really enjoy hanging out with the rest of us in the dorm hallway.
As we prognosticators jockeyed for position in the conversation, we didn’t agree on much other than that our parents, teachers, elected officials, and the rest of them obviously had no clue. This disdain for the older generation united us despite our differences.
Course now that I’m in the older generation, I realize I actually had no clue back then. By which I mean the clue that I thought I had as a young adult is now clearly false or at the very least inadequate and often missing the whole point of the question. Which begs the question well what is the point of the question, and the answer is I don’t know. Because the question itself begs further questions like what do we even mean by ‘meaning’? Are we seeking the meaning of the word ‘life’ – a definition? Do we want to go beyond the literal – something more like life’s purpose? Or do we want to know what imbues life with meaning – makes it meaningful?
At close to fifty, this is what I do know about life: We are born and we die, and in between, in no particular order, we grow, we learn, we work, we walk, we think, we have sex, we run, we help, we sit, we shit, we piss, we bleed, we breathe, we sweat, we talk, we laugh, we scream, we cry. These are the mechanics of our lives. Being present in every moment gives it meaning. Being aware of our own thoughts and interests, looking our fellow humans in the eye, taking an interest in what they’re saying and doing, noticing, smiling, and expressing thanks, all of that helps transform us from random atoms and actors spinning alone on a ball in the void into human beings.
Looking back on those late nights in the hallway of my college dorm, I think the gentle quiet types among us knew this. I think they were even trying to show us, to tell it to us in their quiet way beneath the din. We just couldn’t hear them. Enamored with the truth of our passions, protests, and future plans, we couldn’t discern what in the hell they were doing just sitting among us with their kind faces and interested eyes, let alone that it was the meaning of life. Oh and the artists. Pretty sure they were clued in, too.
~Julie Lythcott-Haims spent a decade as Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, where she received the Dinkelspiel Award for her contributions to the undergraduate experience. A mother of two teenagers, she has spoken and written widely on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, and her work has appeared in a TED Talk and two TEDx Talks as well as in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, and Parents. She holds degrees from Stanford, Harvard Law School, and California College of the Arts, and is a member of the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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