One of the questions asked of the ministers in December was the classic “What is the meaning of life?” The question has been caricatured as sophomoric, perhaps even rhetorical. I have heard many answers from James Taylor’s “The meaning of life is to enjoy the passage of time” to the Dali Lama’s “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
I do not believe that the meaning of life is up to each individual to decide for themselves. It’s all well and good to “follow your bliss” as Joseph Campbell enjoined, but our world does not exist as a collection of self-serving individuals. We are called, nay obligated, to serve a larger purpose. The happiest people I know are those who serve a greater cause than themselves.
For me, the meaning of life is to make other’s lives more meaningful. I remember a story told to me by a farmer long ago. “An old man was planting a new vineyard, tending his small vines with care and love. His wife and he had lived a long time, raising their children and giving to their community what little they could spare. They were tired but content. One day as the old man was finishing the last of his plants, a young man came by on the road and seeing the old man working so hard said “Old man, why do you waste your time planting vines that will only bear fruit long after you are gone? Surely, this is foolishness.” The old man looked up at the traveler, leaned on his shovel and said “What I toil for is not for me but for those who follow. The good never dies.” And with that the young man shook his head and walked on.
The good never dies. I think about that phrase often these days as we struggle daily with our own personal lives and the outrageous and numbing assault on common decency. What I believe is that whenever we make the world a little better we are bringing meaning to the life of ourselves and others. Seeing life as service makes every act — from wiping a runny nose to feeding the hungry — an act of meaning-making. Our meaning grows not with what we attain but with what we give away. As Nelson Henderson put it best: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
See you in church,