Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The meaning of life - finally

(At Cameron Trading Post, Arizona)

The meaning of life – a reflection©

by George Epp

“The purpose of life, the philanthropist knows, is to make the world better. The only question is, Why?” (Joan Chittister, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, p. 130)

There are, of course, many stories and anecdotes that contain the question of “the meaning (or purpose) of life.” One such is a spoof on Kahlil Gibran and goes something like this:

A disciple climbed the high mountain to the place where the great guru sat in meditation. “What is the meaning of fate?” the acolyte asked. The teacher was silent for a moment, in deep thought. “It is what causes great ships to embark on stormy seas to carry goods to those who need them. It is what causes trucks and trains to travel many, many miles in the dead of night with a worthy purpose in mind.” “And that is the meaning of fate?” said the puzzled supplicant. “Fate?” exclaimed the master. “I thought you said ‘freight.’”

One of Chittisters chapters is titled, “What is the purpose of life?” In a few pages, she—in a manner that some would call ‘audacious’—proceeds to answer the question. It got me thinking, though, about the role this question plays in the way I see the world, and live in it. Like you, I don’t go around asking the question; it smacks of junior high debate, doesn’t it.

And yet, I realize that virtually all my choices are, in effect, an answer to that question. Why did I become a teacher? Because I believed that teachers have a role to play in “making the world a better place” through the education of the next generation. I didn’t say that, but I must have believed it or I would never have let myself in for the low salary (they’re better now), the hours and hours of preparation and grading, the struggles with motivation, discipline, etc., etc.

In retirement, I have chosen to do a number of things, including these:

  • I cook meals for my wife and me on days when she works in the local library. I might say that I’m making the world a better place by nourishing her when she’s tired, and helping her to do the important work of providing educational resources to the community without distraction.
  • I write this blog, which makes the world a better place because a few people will read this paragraph and think about how their choices represent their answer to the question of purpose and meaning.
  • I chair the Eigenheim Mennonite Church council, because I believe that that institution has a role to play in making the world a better place.
  • I edit a provincial newsletter for Mennonite Church Saskatchewan because I believe that what the Mennonite Churches of Saskatchewan do together makes the province a better place, and to do those things more and better, people need to be informed and motivated.
  • I participate in the local Writers Group because I believe that a world in which people formulate and write their thoughts and share their knowledge and wisdom is a better place than a world without “literature.”

(Some days, I want to pitch all of it and move to a place where “nobody knows my name.” Other days, the activities reward and energize me.)

A behaviourist would smile and say that I do these things precisely because they bring rewards to me personally, and that what I ‘choose’ to do is motivated not by philanthropy, but by selfishness. I know what people around me will reward me for, in other words, so that’s what I ‘choose’ to do.

That may be closer to the truth than my list of activities above. Maybe I just-can’t-say-no to a lot of stuff because I don’t want to risk a loss of positive regard.

I occasionally write adult Bible study material. For that I get paid. It works out—probably—to about five dollars an hour or less. Would I do it without the pay? That would be another test of my version of the meaning and the purpose of my life.

Here’s Chittister again: “God did not finish creation. We are put here to do our part in completing the project. What else can possibly be worth a life?” (p.132)

I don’t think I’d describe it that way. I think my fellow church members—on average—would. What about you?

If you know the purpose and meaning of life, write to me at g.epp@sasktel.net and I’ll pass your wisdom on to all my readers. (Or should I have said ‘both?’)

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