What is the meaning of life? People have been kicking that one around forever.
A better question might be: “What makes life meaningful?”
But I’m interested in a deeper question: Is life inherently meaningful? Regardless of whether we bring our brand of meaning to it or whether we can even articulate what meaning is.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Existential phenomenologists would say it only matters if someone is there to hear it. But I believe a falling tree creates sound waves and when ears are close enough, the circuit is complete and there is sound.
Similarly, I believe life is meaningful even when we’re too busy to realize it.
I thought about this in Northside Park in Wheaton, looking out over the lagoon, sipping coffee on a beautiful early July morning. My grandsons were busy in the outdoor pool nearby, swimming laps. There was nowhere else I needed to be and nowhere else I wanted to be, two pre-conditions for entering the here and now. That and not being in a hurry. You can’t be in a hurry in the present. Neither can you be “lost in thought,” as Eckhart Tolle says in The Power of Now. You enter the present when you’re more aware of your surroundings than you are of your inner self.
I was momentarily content to be right here, right now. Mind you, all the ducks of my life were not in a row. All is never right with my world. But this was not about circumstances. The present is always present, regardless of circumstances. It’s always there for us, even though we rarely realize it, which is what Emily Gibbs realizes when she revisits her 12th birthday in Act III of Our Town, my favorite play.
Our Town nails the meaning of life.
In the first two acts, we roll blissfully along in the capable hands of the all-knowing Stage Manager, who serves as our tour guide to Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Nine years have passed since Emily Webb married George Gibbs (in Act II). They have a son and a farm. But then (spoiler alert) the reader smashes headlong into the brick wall of untimely death. We find ourselves in the Grover’s Corners graveyard.
Act III is why playwright Edward Albee, author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so he knew a thing or two about tough plays, described Our Town as “one of the toughest, saddest, most brutal plays I’ve ever come across — and so beautiful.” Act III is a tough read, but don’t let that put you off because this is where you’ll find the meaning of life.
Emily, the graveyard’s newest resident, is warned against returning to the world of the living, but chooses to go anyway — for one day, her 12th birthday. She is quickly overwhelmed. “I can’t look at everything hard enough,” she says. “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.”
Soon enough it becomes unbearable.
“I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She breaks down.
“I didn’t realize. All that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, world … Good-by to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths … and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
On my too-infrequent visits to the present, I am reminded that life is heaven on Earth, but we are generally too preoccupied, distracted, aggravated, busy, and lost in our thoughts and feelings (or our smartphones) to realize it. O, Earth, too wonderful for anyone to realize you … not for long, anyway, and not often enough.
Martin Buber calls it the “melancholy of our fate.” We live in two realms, but most of our life is spent in the realm of I-It, where the subjective and objective are split. Nonetheless, we’re capable of entering the world of I-Thou — aka The Present, aka The Garden of Eden, aka Life Itself — where the veil of the ordinary is lifted, revealing the extraordinary.
We can’t live there forever. That’s our melancholy. But if we never glimpse life’s fullness, even for a moment, that would be truly tragic.
Unhappy ending? Not really. Emily experiences the full meaning of life just before she lets go of it. But we’re not doomed, not yet. We can, in fleeting moments, realize how wonderful it is to be alive on Planet Eden. We have the key to the kingdom. Using that key is up to us.
The meaning of life is not a bumper sticker or a set of steps or principles. It’s not a prescription or recipe for fulfillment. In spite of life’s setbacks, differences in body chemistry, inequality, or simply being too busy to look at one another, realizing the wonder of the world is possible.
If we enter the present, lift the veil, and look at everything hard enough, we will find, like Emily, that life is filled with more meaning than we ever dared to dream.