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The meaning of life – what is it really all about?


The meaning of life – what is it really all about?

It’s the beginning of a new year – time to set goals and perhaps take some time out to think about what is really important to us. ALLISON WHITE discusses the meaning of life as we head into 2024.

“I bought an expensive dishwasher but when it arrived, there was a problem with the installation,” my old friend wailed. “A little job turned into a major job, and we now have to replace the sink to fit it in.”

I reminded her that this was very much a First World problem. Only months earlier she had been preparing to meet her maker after her cardiologist advised that she had a problem that could claim her life … well, within a heartbeat.

The scare caused her to reassess her life and contemplate the good, the bad and the ugly that she had known in her 66 years. Had she been a good person? A good mother? A good friend? If she ceased to exist tomorrow, what would be said about her?

The dishwasher paled into insignificance, a problem that will be all but forgotten by the end of the year.

After not-so-subtly reminding her of this, we went on to continue a tradition with its roots in our days at high school, when we would discuss what we wanted from the year – the goals and ambitions that we wanted and hoped would shape our lives.

In our teens it had been boyfriends; in our 20s it was fashion, cars and houses; in our 30s we pursued career success; in our 40s we focused on what we wanted for our children; in our 50s retirement and a quieter life came into the picture.

In our 60s, we began thinking about our health and happiness, how life had so quickly escaped from us, and although we had largely achieved our earlier goals and ambitions, what did we really have to show for ever having existed at all?

We agreed we had abandoned the materialism of our younger years and now it was time to focus on what we wanted our legacy to be, how we wanted to be remembered.

And so, we arrive at 2024 – on the 70 side of 65 – grateful for having survived thus far, and it’s time to think about the purpose of this life and if there is anything that needs to be changed or indeed, can be changed.

As we come to grips with attending more funerals and farewelling old school buddies and friends from down the decades, it’s all very well to say, “live each day as if it’s your last” but that has always been a tricky concept.

If I live today like it’s my last and then survive another day, week, month or year, I will be homeless and hungry.

So, the big question remains: What is the meaning of life? What will be our legacy and does it really matter whether we simply disappear into history or leave a mark, no matter how small, on the planet?

Few will have their image immortalised in a statue, their name attached to a park or a highway, or their existence recorded beyond the Births, Deaths and Marriages registry.

But many will have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who just might keep a photo on the wall or tell a story about the, hopefully wonderful, person they knew, however briefly.

Life’s meaning is elusive.

According to the Deep Thought computer in the cult 1970s series Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the great question of life is 42.

In the 1980s, Monty Python brought its own iconic slant to the meaning of life, reminding us that we are indeed very small particles – and that people are not wearing enough hats.

Countless philosophers, psychologists and mathematicians have also struggled for centuries seeking the answer to life’s great question: “What’s it all about?”

As the old saying goes, the only certainty in life is death and taxes and, as the latter is a somewhat dry and boring topic, death potentially offers some insight to the true meaning of life.

A funeral service gives pause to ponder just what we want our legacy to be and in what context we will be best remembered, if remembered at all.

Two funerals I attended over successive weeks gave a glimpse of just what this might be.

First, there was a great corporate boss. During his life, he enjoyed riches and acclaim and its accompanying trappings – a fine house, sporty car, stylish wives, first class globe-trotting and the respect of his colleagues.

There wasn’t a lot of time to smell the roses and he did lead a busy and stressful working life, but he pursued his ambition relentlessly and achieved his career goals. There was little doubt he was a success, but cancer doesn’t really care about that.

For his funeral service, the chapel was filled with business leaders and a veritable who’s who of the business world.  Fine words eloquently spoken extolled his talents and achievements.

The only tears were those shed by a small boy, his grandson.

Unfortunately, the lad who would carry his name forward and who, from all appearances was the only one there who would actually miss his presence, didn’t rate a mention in the eulogy.

A big man died, a small boy cried and life goes on.

In contrast, a funeral service for an 89-year-old woman who had lived almost all of her life in the same house in the same rural locality did not fill the chapel the following week.

She had produced a family of eight, and most of the people in the room were her descendants, along with a smattering of neighbours, and the few old friends who had not pre-deceased her.

Her eldest son, a farmer, found it hard to find words and when he did, he spoke them in a country drawl without fuss and between sniffs.

He told of her marriage in 1933 and how she had worked beside his father on the farm for 55 years, milking the cows as well as raising her family, cooking, and sewing.

After his father’s death in 1988, she had remained living alone in the same little house they had shared since their honeymoon, welcoming the arrival of new generations of children.

He spoke haltingly of how his mother’s kitchen had always been the most warm and welcoming place when he brought his friends home. Her wood stove, which she was always either stoking up or cooling down, took pride of place in her tiny kitchen where a light summer breeze wafted through louvred windows.

The table, bench seating either side, took up so much space he marvelled that so many boys had been able to cram around it to feast on his mother’s freshly baked scones.

He also told of how his mother, in her advanced years, had remarked that she had not contributed much to the planet.

Yet, not only had she successfully raised eight good citizens who were now happy grandparents themselves but had also worked for the war effort operating the local switchboard when telephones first came to the area.

She had supported all her growing children’s interests and actively contributed to various organisations in her community.

Her grandchildren and great grandchildren also shared memories of a much-loved and loving little old lady, explaining tearfully that she had been so much a part of their own lives.

An old woman died, everyone cried, and life still goes on.

As time goes by, the successful executive’s name is certain to retain its place in annual reports filed away in company archives.

Subsequent managers in the company to which he devoted his life may also recall his achievements from time to time.

Life was good to him while he was here and no doubt, he enjoyed the ride and found his time well-spent chasing career goals.

The old woman, on the other hand, is unlikely to be remembered in any record books but she is certain to be remembered by her children, her grandchildren and then their children.

Her photo will remain in family albums and sitting on mantelpieces, and stories of what a truly good person she was will be told around dining tables for years to come.

There is no moral to the story. It is simply an observation that if the meaning of life is related to leaving a mark on the planet, then human relationships have more potential for leaving an indelible footprint than many perceived “achievements” of the new millennium.

Of course, at the end of the day when the eulogies are read, we won’t be here to hear them anyway, so does it really matter whether we are mourned or even leave anything to show that we have been here at all?

The true meaning of life then could well be, enjoy the ride, here for a good time not for a long time and perhaps Monty Python got it right:

“Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.

May 2024 be a happy and healthy year for you.

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