The Meaning of Life: Jonathan Gabay

Live for each moment.
Give as much as you can and take as little as you need.
Live life with your eyes open – see the beauty of the world, and the suffering.
Live life with your heart open – let your compassion and love embrace all things.
Virginia McKenna (1931-), quoted in The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, 1995

The Meaning of Life is another book of quotes on this elusive yet perennial subject, this time compiled by Jonathan Gabay, who solicited opinions from people all over the world. He also added some quotes that were not from his survey.

Considering they originate largely from educated and successful people, most of the quotes were surprisingly shallow, trite, or glib. Some of the contributors with an excessively inflated sense of self-importance had their secretaries respond for them – apparently even the meaning of life does not require the personal touch if you consider yourself a highfalutin hoity-toity VIP. Or perhaps being a highfalutin hoity-toity VIP actually provides most of the meaning in their lives. Or perhaps I just like saying “highfalutin hoity-toity VIP”. Anyway, several of the contributors tried to be funny or oh-so-clever, with very limited success, much like myself. Many, perhaps most, didn’t even address the question of the meaning of life at all. The worst of the worst was a submission from Billy Graham, where he spouted his usual superficial dogma of The One True Religion as the answer to “sin, sorrow and death”, complete with the standard threats of doom, gloom, and coming damnation. More like the demeaning of life!

Two contributors of the theist bent quoted Micah 6:8, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” I don’t see a meaning of life in there, but at least it was less obnoxious and threatening than Graham’s tirade.

One contributor quoted Shaw (that seems lazy — I thought they were supposed to be quoting themselves), but the quote was actually concatenated from two different sources:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkely, 1903

My life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Sussex Daily News, 07 March 1907

It’s an interesting exercise to try to categorize the more coherent opinions in this book:

  1. Love
    Follow the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. Love, be selfless, sacrifice yourself.
  2. Society
    Make the world a better place. Sympathize, empathize. Care, help, support, understand, respect others. Be concerned about others. Be good, kind, generous to others. Do good works. Contribute to society and the common good of your community and the world. Volunteer.
  3. Enjoyment
    Be happy, smell the flowers, live for each moment, enjoy life, enjoy music, have fun, pursue pleasure and amusement, laugh and make others laugh.
  4. Relationships
    Be a good parent to your children, cherish your family and friends.
  5. Creativity
    Be creative, make music, art, etc.
  6. Achievement
    Learn, gain knowledge and understanding. Break through your limitations. Be fully committed to pursuing your ideals and dreams. Battle for your beliefs and pursue your goals. Nurture your talents. Life is what you make of it, so make the best of life and be the best you can be.
  7. Authenticity
    Be yourself. Don’t pretend. Dare to stand alone.
  8. Virtue
    Practice the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, restraint, courage.
  9. Religion
    Glorify God, have a relationship with God (presumably platonic), prepare for the glorious afterlife, avoid hell, fulfill God’s purpose (whatever that is – it sounds like you have to figure that out for yourself). Shun reason, logic, science, and independent thought. Embrace dogma, doctrine, faith, belief without evidence, and the supernatural. Blindly follow The One True Religion or suffer the horrific divine consequences.
  10. Life
    There is no meaning of life or purpose to life, but life has value and there can be meaning in life. Life itself is the meaning of life, so preserve life. Life is a journey, not an end in itself.

Most of these points are giving advice about how to live life, and not at all illuminating the meaning of it. Oh well, it looks like we still don’t know the meaning of life after all!

Here’s the rest of the best of the best from the book:

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism; the way you play it is free will.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964)

The purpose of man’s life is not happiness, but worthiness. Happiness may come as an accessory, we dare never make it an end.
Felix Adler (1851-1933), Creed and Deed, 1877

Geologic history shows us that life is only a short episode between two eternities of death, and that, even in this episode, conscious thought has lasted and will last only a moment. Thought is only a gleam in the midst of a long night.
But it is this gleam which is everything.
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), The Foundations of Science: The Value of Science, 1913, translated by George Bruce Halsted

Life is to be lived, and hopefully in living, one can find pleasure, achievement, amusement, love, friendship and tranquility. To me, movement is tranquility.
Stirling Moss (1929-), car racing champion, quoted in The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, 1995

The meaning of life is the road, not the goal. For each answer is delusive, each fulfillment melts away between our fingers, and the goal is no longer a goal once it is attained.
Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931)

I don’t think life has any meaning.
It has beauty, it has ugliness. It has happiness, and pain, love, hate, great rewards and sometimes enormous responsibilities. It has laughter.
But it has no meaning. A cowslip in the hedgerow doesn’t mean anything, neither does a sunrise over a tropical sea, or a thunderstorm. They are wonders of Nature, but they don’t mean anything.
If I had to give a short answer it would be ‘Life is meaningless, but it is wonderful. Where would we be without it? You’re dead right we would.’
Ronnie Barker (1929-2005), quoted in The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, 1995

Individual existence seems of little value and any meaning must lie in the continuum. All we can do is to paint our dreams on the patch of worn canvas allotted to us. We must use the brightest freshest colours we can find, knowing that the shapes will blur, the colours wash away and that soon someone else will come to paint over our brief effort at creation.
Marjorie Wallace (1945-), quoted in The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, 1995

And finally…

The meaning of life is searching for the meaning of life.
Sylvia Anderson (1937-), as told to her by Brains, the scientific and engineering genius behind International Rescue, seen on the Thunderbirds TV series and movies, quoted in The Meaning of Life, Jonathan Gabay, 1995

At the risk of upstaging supermarionated genius, I leave you with these superficially wise words:

The meaning of life is to find meaning in life.

Life is what you make it.

What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?
Unknown, bumper sticker


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