The Meaning of Life: Celebrity Wisdom

  1. Life is to be enjoyed
  2. We are here to serve God
  3. We are here to seek wisdom and self-actualization
  4. The meaning of life is a mystery
  5. Life is meaningless
  6. We are here to help others
  7. Life is a struggle
  8. We are here to contribute to society
  9. We must create meaning for ourselves
  10. Life is absurd
    Richard Kinnier, Jerry Kernes, Nancy Tribbensee, Tina Van Puymbroeck, Contents, “The Meaning of Life” According to the Great and the Good, 2010 (from a study by the authors, “What Eminent People Have Said About the Meaning of Life”, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, volume 43, number 1, winter 2003)

There it is. The meaning of life. Settled. Well, meanings, actually. Four of them say life has no discernible meaning – life’s a mystery, a struggle, absurd, or just meaningless. Another one says we’re here to serve God, which sounds more like a prison sentence rather than something meaningful or even desirable. Or perhaps just another form of struggle, like a struggle against slavery.

So that leaves enjoyment, wisdom, self-actualization (whatever that is – the term has become almost meaningless psychological jargon), helping others, contributing to society (which includes helping others, one would think), and finally, to create meaning for ourselves.

There are a number of book titles that directly mention the meaning of life. Including the above book, some of the ones I’ve read are:

  • “The Meaning of Life” According to the Great and the Good, Richard Kinnier, Jerry Kernes, Nancy Tribbensee, Tina Van Puymbroeck, 2010
  • The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, Terry Eagleton, 2007
  • What’s It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, Julian Baggini, 2004
  • The Meaning of Life, Bradley Trevor Greive, 2002
  • The Meaning of Life: A Reader, E. D. Klemke, editor, 2000
  • The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, editor, 1995
  • Life and Meaning: A Reader, Oswald Hanfling, editor, 1987
  • The Meaning of Life in Five Great Religions, R.C. Chalmers, John A. Irving, editors, 1965
  • On the Meaning of Life, Will Durant, 1932

Their arguments fall into the ten categories above, more or less, with one additional category: The question “What is the meaning of life?” is itself meaningless. This is an approach typical of philosophers: question the question. But in this case the approach is the correct one, in my opinion. The more sensible question is: “How can we find meaning in our lives?”

Let’s look at some of the more useful quotes “according to the great and the good”, who are celebrities, because obviously famous people are more intelligent and know more about life than anybody else. (I’ve corrected the quotes for Gilda Radner, Lillian Smith, and Benjamin Franklin, and I’ve attributed the correct Robert Byrne to his quote – he’s the pool player, not the chess champion! This makes me wonder how accurate the quotes are that I couldn’t verify. Just because they’re academics doesn’t mean they’re not sloppy. Now if celebrities had edited this book, I’m sure the accuracy would have been impeccable…)

First, enjoy life!

Carpe diem! Rejoice while you are alive; enjoy the day; live life to the fullest; make the most of what you have. It is later than you think.
Horace (65-8 BCE)

Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.
James Dean (1931-1955)

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a “meaning” as well, that will be a bonus.
If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live – or to play. Our graceful, smiling cousins in the sea may be wiser than us.
“Consider the ant,” said the Bible. Good advice, to primitive peoples struggling to survive in a hostile environment.
But perhaps we should consider the dolphin.
Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Seek wisdom! Self-actualize!

Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not the sum of what we have been, but what we yearn to be.
José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882

Life’s a mystery…

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Part I, “Lord, What is Man?”, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, 1912

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
John Lennon (1940-1980), Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) song, Double Fantasy album, 1980; first published appearance of this quote may have been Allen Saunders (1899-1986), Reader’s Digest, 1957

Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end… Life … has ambiguity. Life … is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.
Gilda Radner (1946-1989), It’s Always Something, 1989. “Delicious ambiguity” is a quote from her psychotherapist, Joanna Bull. Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer at the all-too-young age of 42.

To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art; the hour when faith in the future becomes knowledge of the past; to lay down one’s power for others in need; to shake off the old ordeal and get ready for the new; to question, knowing that never can the full answer be found; to accept uncertainties quietly, even our incomplete knowledge of God; this is what man’s journey is about, I think.
Lillian Smith (1897-1966), The Journey, 1954

Contribute to society!

If you have not found something to die for, you have no reason to live.
Malcolm X (aka Malcolm Little, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz; 1925-1965)

If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1738

Create meaning for yourself…

The purpose of life is a life of purpose.
Robert Byrne (1930-), The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, 1989

That last quote about sums it up. There is no meaning of life, but there can be meaning in life. And that’s entirely up to each one of us.


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