WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
Were unique and we want other people to recognise it.
by Ernest O'Neill
Why are we alive? What is the meaning of life? That's the subject we're discussing at this time each day. You remember, yesterday we dealt with the possible answer to that question. It is the answer: We don't know why we are alive, but we'd better stay alive as long as we can. So, we really answer the question: we're alive to stay alive.
We're alive to get a good education, to get a good job, to get to stay alive. And we don't know why we're here, but we'd better stay here as long as we possibly can. Of course we concluded yesterday by saying that this finally is bound to end in futility, because actually we're not going to be able to establish final security in this world. Finally death is going to get us in the end and we're not going to be able to stay alive. That haunts many of us who are living for that purpose.
We're living to stay living, and, really, that's what gives a lot of us a feeling of anxiety and angst in our lives. We know that really we're just distracting ourselves from the main issue which is the purpose of life and what we're here for. We're trying to distract ourselves from it by short-sightedness, by nearsightedness, by getting preoccupied with the food, the shelter and clothing that is needed to stay alive.
So, many of us realise that this is a bit like being a fiddler on a roof. We are little fleas standing on a sphere that is flying through space at tremendous speed. We don't exactly know why people in Australia don't fall off. We give it the name of the law of gravity very learnedly, but we really know that all we're doing is giving a title to a thing and not really explaining why that gravity remains as it is. So we are like fiddlers on a roof. We are stuck like little fleas on this sphere.
We are trying to give ourselves some sense of security and stability because we think we're made for it. We realise full well that the security and stability that we're giving ourselves is purely temporary. Indeed compared with the size of the sphere that we're standing on and compared with the mighty forces that could pull us off at any moment we're doing anything but insuring our own security.
So, that's part of the reason why so many of us with even good bank balances and good investments still feel a tremendous sense of insecurity. That's why incurable diseases and terminable diseases frighten us so much. They really just highlight the fear and anxiety that we feel even when we're in the best of health, because we realise we don't know why we're here, and we don't think we can guarantee our staying here as long as we want. We feel, "What else can you do?" There's nobody else to look after us. We'd better look after ourselves. And, so it casts us into that kind of mode that we've described a security syndrome that is bound to end in futility.
It's a little the same with the old significance syndrome that we get into, because many of us say, "Why are we alive?" We don't know why we're alive, but we do know that there are four billion others and they're all trying to make themselves important in some way. They probably are doing it because of the same reason that we're doing it.
We feel that there are four billion of us. I am only one little flea in the midst of this mass of fleas. I don't know why I'm alive, but "boy, I feel I'm important." I feel there's something about me that's different. I feel that there's something unique about me. I feel I'm of some value. I know I can't say I'm of more value than the others, but still I don't feel I'm just a number. I feel somewhere, somehow, somebody knows I'm here or they ought to know I'm here. And, most of us would say that.
We would feel a bit like John Milton the poet, you remember, who felt he was born for some great purpose in life. He felt there was some special reason for him being on the earth. He prepared to fulfil that destiny that he felt he was made to fulfil. Probably we don't feel we're poets. We don't feel we're great writers. We don't feel we're very important people and yet we feel there is something to us, even if "I'm just a poor little office worker in the centre of London", "...even if I'm just another tool maker", "even if I'm just another press operator," "...even if I'm just another laundry operator", "...even if I'm just another teacher of the many teachers", "...even if I'm just another doctor of the many doctors". "Yet, still I feel I'm important. There's something different about me."
We all feel that. We feel we're unique. Strange thing is you are unique. You know. There's nobody like you in the whole universe; nobody like you. There never has been anybody like you. There never will be anybody like you. You are absolutely unique even if you have an identical twin. There is no one exactly like you with exactly the combination of intellectual, emotional, physical and historical factors that you have. There's nobody quite like you, so in a strange sense you're right. You are unique.
Yet, most of us say, "Yeah, but nobody else notices it!" That's the problem many of us get into. Nobody else seems to notice that we're unique. Nobody else seems to give us special attention. So if we're asked the question of why we're alive, we probably would have to answer, "Well, we're alive to gain attention from other people, to try to get others to see how unique we are, to try to get others to give us some sense of significance, because we feel we are significant. We feel we are significant. It's just that nobody notices us. Nobody seems to notice we're significant."
So many of us get on that slavish treadmill that is called by some of us self-esteem, by others of us self-worth, by others of us recognition, by others of us peer approval. Whatever name we give to it, we really mean we're driven people. We're driven by a desire to get other people to notice us and approve of us. We feel we were made to be recognised in some way. We feel we were made for someone to notice us, someone to approve of us, someone to acknowledge that we're here.
So from very early years as little children at grade school, or at infant school, or at kindergarten we begin to find out what we have to do to gain the teacher's attention. Then we get into primary school or elementary school and we begin to learn that if you do well at your subject, or do well in your grades, or get good marks at English, then the teacher approves of you. So, we learn like little puppies how to get treats. Or, like little horses, we learn how to get another sugar lump, or we learn like little kids how to get another cookie. Really we become cookie monsters. We will do anything for cookies. We'll do anything to get someone to give us attention or give us recognition, or give us approval.
Of course, the whole world plays on that as we graduate from university or college. We find that the boss will give us a little nod of approval if we'll do certain things right. We see that we'll get a little more money if we say things in a certain way in the office. We see that we'll get attention, promotion and recognition if we tread a certain party line. As we climb up that miserable executive ladder we'll find that we get the keys to the executive washroom if we say the right thing in the right way. So, we become little cookie monsters, little dogs that will do anything for a pat, little dogs that will do anything to be stroked.
We find that our answer to the question, "Why are we alive?" often in actual practice is answered in order to get other peoples' approval, in order to get other people to recognise us, in order to get other people to approve of us. So many of us who are husbands and fathers want to get approval as good providers for our homes. Many of us as wives and mothers want to get approval as good cooks, good housekeepers. Many of us as children want to get approval from our parents, from our teachers, anybody that we can get attention from, so that they will approve of us, recognise us and acknowledge us.
So, we answer the question, "Why are we alive?" by saying that we want attention and approval from other people. Is that all there is? No, that's not all there is. There is something more. Let's talk about it tomorrow.
Meaning of Life Table of Contents