Life has to be given a meaning because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning. Henry Miller
In a cosmic sense, our lives and the existence of all life on Earth is a bit of a paradox – we and the world around us are mind-boggling wondrous contingencies beyond the language of superlatives, improbable almost beyond belief. The paradox comes in the reality that it all amounts to nothing, ultimately, because life has no cosmic meaning and every creature will die, everything else will be destroyed and all that is will vanish forever without a trace.
Which is a polite way of saying life is meaningless, basically, but you’re here now so the bright side, REAL wellness thing to do is invent meanings and purposes that promote wellbeing, yours and as many others as possible.
Any discussion about meaning of life invites a distinction between cosmic and terrestrial meaning. Life is meaningless only in the cosmic sense; the opportunities for finding meaning comes in the second kind of meaning, to be discussed next.
Cosmic meaning is meaning from the perspective of the universe. This is the sense in which life is insignificant and pointless, extremely limited in time and space. We are tiny beings on a planet in an unremarkable solar system in a galaxy with hundreds of billions of solar systems – and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. It would be hard if not impossible to write an understatement that tops this one: we are not the center or point (raison d’etre) of the universe. The cosmos is coldly indifferent to our fate. Everything is devoid of lasting consequence.
Billions of people, however, believe their lives have enduring significance. Acculturated from birth to see themselves as cosmic celebrities, special beings created by a god who loves them personally and will, after death, invite them to dwell forever and ever in a really cool place. This conviction would give anyone a strong sense of cosmic significance. Nice work or retirement, perhaps, if you can get it, that is, if true. However, there is a downside to such thinking. In the Christian court of no appeal, believers in this cosmic meaning may be found guilty of not having loved the god sufficiently, in which case eternal horrors await.
If the cosmic significance I’ve just described sounds preposterous, and you suspect I’m making this up (and I wouldn’t fault you for that – it does sound bonkers), then check the obituaries of your local paper. Here you will find accounts of people who, despite dying, are said to have transitioned to a glorious place of eternal bliss. (Oddly, I’ve never seen an obituary notice that the departed is now burning in hell.) Or, be a bit more scholarly about it: read David Benetar’s 2017 book, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.
Alas, there is zero evidence and even less likelihood of heaven or hell. Thus, this kind of theological take on cosmic meaning has to be embraced on faith and more than a few grains of proverbial salt. But, then again, maybe that’s what it takes to get into The Good Place.
In a terrestrial sense, of course, our lives do have meaning, do matter, enormously, not only for ourselves but to others and, in some cases, perhaps to a whole tribe, a village maybe, hell, in some rare cases, to the whole of mankind, in some way – for a while, at least. Think Paine, Lincoln, Darwin, Ingersoll, Dawkins and Harris – and the list of your own heroes, past and present.
Terrestrial meaning must be the dew and rain, seed and soil, air and light of REAL wellness – the beating heart of being well that makes the human predicament less burdensome. Terrestrial meaning might entail what Peter Singer termed a transcendent cause, one beyond the boundaries of the self. Viktor Frankl created an approach to meaning linked to mental wellbeing called logotherapy, based on the premise that we are motivated by a will to meaning, an inner pull toward animating purposes that make life worthwhile. Nietzsche’s way of capturing this aspect of terrestrial meaning was to say he who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’
REAL Wellness and Quality of Life
Hobbes was an optimist: life is far more dismal than simply ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Life is of low, low, very very low quality, for most, whether poor or rich or something in-between. Elon Musk, billionaire creator of fabulous companies (i.e., Tesla, Space Explorations Technologies and a new tunneling start-up), admits to being under pressure all the time and consequently suffering mood swings, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. So, if you want to do better, take quality of life enhancements very seriously.
To boost quality of life, recognize how extraordinarily unfortunate life really is and knock yourself out working passionately to make it less so. Accept the unwelcome reality that life sucks is the norm, lower your expectations and resolve to pick up every jewel of joy that can be found in your path (Ingersoll). The end really is near, not from some brain-dead End Times fundamentalist doomsday but simply because life is naturally short, and even shorter if misfortune strikes, which is never unlikely. And, if you’re old, well, do I really need to belabor this point?
The Final Years: Special Tips for Old Folks
If, like me, you are nearing the far side of middle age, you are well aware that the only way to avoid growing old and suffering the loss of precious bodily fluids is to die young, and you have managed not to do that, by virtue of random good fortune, genetics and maybe even wise choices.
Your reward is a difficult era of trials and tribulations. Make the most of it – life as a senior has its own peculiar rewards, besides movie discounts and early bird dinner specials. Seize every opportunity. Deal with the slings and arrows of creeping decrepitude with grace, panache and a sense of humor, to the extent possible. (Occasionally, go ahead and gripe and bitch and be cranky as hell – most will understand.)
Move as much as your joints and other body parts allow. Listen to advice from others but keep your own counsel. Don’t give ground without a fight, but don’t go down with the ship, either. While all your senses will be less acute than decades ago, view what’s left as treasures and put them to good use.
Pamper yourself. Sleep as much as possible, within limits. Get massages now and then and, if you enjoy such things, take cold plunges, bask in hot tubs and learn to snowboard, skateboard and surf the big waves in Hawaii! Haha – just kidding about cold plunges. Probably not a good idea but if you want to try new things and you feel frisky enough, go for it.
Make a special effort to keep learning new tricks. Consider writing your autobiography – your children, grandchildren and descendants down through the ages will love it. Doing so might be a challenge that brings you pleasure. If your life has been totally boring, make up some wild stuff – and have your autobiography embargoed for 100 years. After that, your descendants won’t know any better and your life will become a proud family legend. What’s the harm in a little literary license?
No matter your age, come to total terms with the fact that nobody lives forever, at least not on Earth or anywhere else that we can be sure about. Decide how you want to transition back into stardust and celebrate as much as possible, every day, every hour why you’re still here.
So, my friends, seize the day – every day remaining. If now and then you forget to think and act positively, cheerfully and brightly, get an hourglass. Put it on your desk or by the bed. Let it be a subtle reminder not to postpone the good, in ways large and small.