The Biggest Question
My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man…a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?
Burnout and A Loss of Meaning
Burnout is the disease of our age. Time magazine had an editorial way back in the 1980s about “the burnout of just about everybody.” I concluded that the metaphor of burnout was not quite right, particularly when applied to those of us in the church. Burnout is a term that is borrowed from rocketry, when a rocket rising from the earth runs out of fuel, “burns out,” and falls to the earth.
Burnout implies that our problem is a lack of energy. I have concluded that many people who think they are “burning out” do so, not from the lack of energy, but from a lack of meaning (emph. mine). We are tired and despondent. The French call it ennui; the Bible speaks of the “noonday demon,” depression.
The Crucial Thing
In a journal entry by the Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the great existentialist philosopher describes the importance not simply of grasping the truth of the Christian faith, but having the truth of the Christian faith manifest itself in his everyday life:
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, excerpt insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…
What use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points- if it had no deeper meaning for my life?…I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.
Søren Kierkegaard, Journal Entry Dated August 1, 1835.
The Enemy of Our Soul
The other enemy of the soul, meaninglessness…chokes out life with equal vigor. Meaninglessness woos us into spending our one shot at life on insignificant and trivial things. If we are not vigilant, we drift from God’s glorious ambition for our lives, losing sight of anything remotely grand, trading God-instilled passion for an easier and more often traveled road.
And if our hearts aren’t awakened by majesty, our lives soon shrink into little bits of nothingness. Our days become filled with drama over the ridiculous; our complaints fly free at the smallest challenge or difficulty; our energy and wealth are consumed by what is fleeting; and our chatter becomes dominated by events, people, and things that won’t last much longer than the morning mist.
The Importance of Meaningful Work
Have you ever wondered what the number-one thing people are looking for in a job? It’s not salary, it’s not even about getting promoted or working on a dynamic team. The number one thing people want from their jobs, according to professor Teresa Amabile, is meaningful work. Human beings are meaning-makers, we rely on meaning to give us hope and confidence to keep fighting the good fight.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Information from Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle, Harvard Business Review Press.
A Means to an End
Ancient Israel was a means to an end. That’s not a slight. Being a means to an end is what gives things meaning. Purpose. If you refuse to become a means to an end, your life will never have meaning. That’s the meaning of meaning. Live for yourself and you’ll only have yourself to show for yourself. Become a means to an end and your life takes on . . . meaning. Funerals teach us this. Funerals remind us that the value of a life is always measured by how much of it was given away.
The Paradox of Prosperity
The paradox of prosperity is that while living standards have risen steadily decade after decade, personal, family, and life satisfaction haven’t budged. That’s why more people—liberated by prosperity but not fulfilled by it—are resolving the paradox by searching for meaning. As Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco puts it, “The most striking feature of contemporary culture is the unslaked craving for transcendence.”
Visit any moderately prosperous community in the advanced world and along with the plenteous shopping opportunities, you can glimpse this quest for transcendence in action. From the mainstream embrace of once-exotic practices such as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the workplace and evangelical themes in books and movies, the pursuit of purpose and meaning has become an integral part of our lives. People everywhere have moved from focusing on the day-to-day text of their lives to the broader context.
What is the Meaning of Life?
Recently I was watching a children’s television show on YouTube with my kids, when the host asked, “What is the meaning of Life?” His response was typical: “I don’t know,” but what he said next made me laugh: “I don’t know, but I could really go for a smoothie right now!” It’s funny to think about, but isn’t that how many of us respond to the big questions of life?
I don’t have the answer but a smoothie sure sounds good right about now! We end up numbing ourselves with immediate pleasures when we really need to do is search for the truth. We mask our deep longings for meaning in different ways, sometimes with the classic drugs of our society, alcohol, opiates, food, prescription pain killers, or we do it with “good things” that become ends in themselves: our careers, our families, our busyness. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”…So when the deep, foundational questions of our existence bubble up to the surface, may we look first to Christ, not a smoothie.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Work vs. Calling
The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren was supervising the construction of a magnificent cathedral in London. A journalist thought it would be interesting to interview some of the workers, so he chose three and asked them this question, “What are you doing?” The first replied, “I’m cutting stone for 10 shillings a day.” The next answered, “I’m putting in 10 hours a day on this job.” But the third said, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren construct one of London’s greatest cathedrals.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Meaning. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!