When you share your life with teenagers, you’re bound to deal with some daunting existential subjects that come up every so often, and, I don’t mean issues like, “Where’s my iPad,” or “Mom! Dad! Call the doctor! I’m out of acne cream!” I mean the dilemmas that have to do with the Meaning of Life (MOL).
You can’t blame them. After all, there is something quite odd about how most of us live our lives and raise our children: be good, go to school, get high grades, go to college, get a job, start your own family, repeat. At a few points during their young adult life both my boys expressed quizzical doubts about this routine. “I don’t see the point, dad. All this time and work and effort, and for what?” From this point on, the conversation inevitably veers toward the age-old conundrum, The MOL.
If you ever read this blog before, you know that our family is not religious. On a good day we are humanistic atheists, which is a great way to be, but it does not provide easy answers to the MOL question. Personally I don’t think that our human lives have more meaning than the life of any other sentient being on this planet. I may be wrong about this but I don’t think that my dog ever asks her stinky old self what the meaning of her life is. Neither does any pig, monkey, snail, or fish that I’ve ever met. Yet they’re all full of natural zest and passion for life ( except my dog who’s kind of depressed since the vet put her on a weight loss diet).
The meaning of life is life itself, which is quite a meaningless statement, except it’s true.
As humans we are blessed (arguably) with a more developed brain, and we tend to ask many questions and, even worse, come up with all kinds of answers. While many of us find answers to life’s deep questions in religion, more and more people in our society are searching for existential questions that extend beyond god and faith.
So when my boys want to know what’s the point of all the fuss and work, I try to tell them that there is no MOL that is external, independent and subjective. As opposed to what many people would like them to believe, there is no set of agreed-upon goals that we should do our best to reach in our lifetime in order for it to be “meaningful.” As long as you stay somewhere within The Golden Rule, I tell them, go ahead and set your own meaning to your own life. It may be about your job at NASA searching for alternative planets for the human race after we’re done destroying this one, or maybe it’s your depressed dog, or your exotic bug collection, or a combination of different things that you feel passionate about. But the meaning comes from what you mean, you know?
But what if you don’t know? What if you don’t feel exceptionally passionate about anything in particular? Where do you begin your search? Well… many different paths can lead to multiple and variable answers, but higher education is a good place to start.
Education is not just about getting a job, a family, a retirement plan, and a six feet under plot with a view. Good education expands your mind, which in turn expands your world and opens you up to possibilities you didn’t even know existed. It can expose you to big and meaningful subjects and ideas, so that you’re a better-informed human citizen of planet Earth, and maybe on the way you also find your passion, and let it grab you and take you with it for as long as it’s meaningful for you.
Some people are lucky to realize their passion from the start. They know from age zero that they want to be a musician, a doctor, a plumber, a chain saw juggler. But most of us don’t know. We need time and some ripening before we find what turns us on. And higher education is one good way to explore, and try to discover what may possibly lead to one’s own private MOL, or at least part of it.
Secretly, I have an agenda. All I want is for the boys to get a great job that, unlike mine, pays a lot of money, so they can throw me a couple-three millions when it’s my time to retire. Blogging and collecting exotic bugs don’t pay too well. But as they work and fuss through high school and college, and finally achieve that goal, I also hope that the path they choose is one of joy and passion, and meaning.