What Is the Meaning of Life?
Ethics and meaning
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To reflect upon the meaning of life.
Preparation and materials
- Due to the subject matter, this assembly will require time for reading and understanding prior to delivery.
- To ask about the meaning of life is to ask a philosophical question concerning the reason for, and the importance of, life. This idea can be expressed through a variety of associated questions. Have we ever asked ourselves questions like these?
– Why are we here?
– What is life all about?
– What is the meaning of it all?
Perhaps we’re sitting here thinking, ‘I don’t want to be bothered with all that. I just get on with things.’
- It’s OK to be in both of these groups: sometimes, we’re interested in these questions and sometimes, we’re not. We can’t always be preoccupied with such deep and thought-provoking topics.
We also can’t answer such huge questions in a short assembly like this. Questions like these have been the subject of philosophical, theological and scientific conjecture throughout history. They have engaged thinkers from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. As yet, no one has come up with definitive answers and probably no one ever will.
There are diverse theories about the meaning of life. They are shaped by our philosophical and religious views of life, and our perception of ourselves and of the world around us.
- Our understanding of the meaning of life has to do with the happiness that we find in our own lives, our own personal situations, how we respond to others, where we see ourselves in relation to other people and the impact that we have upon others and that others have upon us.
Our consideration of the meaning of life also touches on what we see as valuable and important. For example, the emphasis that we place on good manners or behaviour may differ from that of someone else.
- This question also makes us think about ethics: what we believe to be right or wrong. For example, some of us will regard abortion as wrong; others will disagree and understand why some women go through such a procedure.
Every day, we are faced with the concepts of good and evil.
– Why do children die of incurable diseases?
– How is it that human beings can be so cruel to one another?
– Why have many thousands of people lost their lives in huge natural disasters?
How we deal with such questions helps us to understand the meaning of our existence and our place in the world.
- People can find meaning through their religion, their concept of God. This can throw up another set of questions.
– Does God exist?
– If God does exist, what is God like?
– Which path do we choose to take in order to reach God?
- Our beliefs about the afterlife and the existence or non-existence of the soul are also an important factor in how we view the meaning of our lives.
– Is there an afterlife?
– Do we have souls?
– Are we simply on this earth to do good, and then be rewarded in heaven?
– Is this life a training ground for the next one, or when we die, do we just decay?
- Scientific responses are more indirect and are based on empiricism: the belief that if you can experience something with your five senses, it must be true. By describing the empirical facts about the universe, how we came to be and our place in the world, science shifts the question from ‘Why?’ to ‘How?’ In this way, science provides a different framework for answering some of the questions that we have posed above.
Time for reflection
There is an alternative approach that is not based on religion or science. This approach asks, ‘What is the meaning of my life? What purpose do I have and how will I fulfil it?’
The following quotation from Leo Rosten asks us to think about that purpose. He said, ‘The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honourable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived.’
We can all take something from this quotation for our daily lives.
– How useful are we? Are we helpful not only to others, but to ourselves? Sometimes, it’s hard to be kind to ourselves, but do we have a use? Everyone has a use to themselves.
– Are we honourable? Do we take responsibility for ourselves and our behaviour? Can we shoulder those responsibilities when they are given to us, or do we hide away from them?
– Are we compassionate? Compassion means thinking about others, showing love and concern for people in whatever situation we find ourselves, and not judging them unfairly.
– Are we making a difference? For Rosten, the purpose of life also involves standing up for something, however small, that we see as important. We don’t need to be a Martin Luther King or an Emmeline Pankhurst to show that we stand up for something and believe in it strongly enough to be counted. Rosten is saying that if you stand up and are counted, you will be recognized. That recognition is what gives you the drive to make a difference. Your purpose will have been seen and noted and in your own small way, you will have given meaning to your life and the lives of others.
How can you make this quotation evident in your life today?