Very often the question that relates to a meaning for life becomes confused with the idea that there is some religious meaning for life, or there is some philosophy that gives us meaning, or that there is no meaning beyond that we choose to assign to life. Each of these views carries positive features, but equally a rigid adherence to any one view could also be a cause for conflict. A part of my youth was to attend chapel and listen to many sermons that informed me that the meaning to life was to be found in Christ’s actions and the guidance I could get from reading the bible. By the time I was in my twenties I had reached the conclusion that this ‘meaning for life’ carried with it some ideas that I felt distinctly uncomfortable with.
The bias that I received tried hard to assure me that there was a ‘true meaning for life’ and all other meanings were of little relevance. Many sermons actually devoted much time, and effort, into dissecting the religion of the Jews and telling me they were ‘wrong’, particular wrath seemed to be directed at Pharisees. These days with more communities having a wider ethnic mix, and a wider range of religious beliefs expressed, I sense a kind of ‘false acceptance’ of other beliefs. This is rather like having the view that we are all of the same family, but my views are the right ones, superior in some way to your views. A second problem that I had was that if the meaning of life were to be found in Christianity then I wondered how many people found that meaning before the life of Christ, and how many might find this meaning without ever having made contact with the teaching of Christ. In a sense there had to be ‘Christians’ before Christ if Christianity means living a purposeful life according to Christ’s teaching.
I think this a good starting point, for either we live our lives in a special enclosed room, suggesting we have found some meaning and you can only enter the room if you are willing to share this meaning, or we accept we should explore carefully what we are assigning to a ‘meaning for life’. The same point can be made with philosophy, choosing to accept that a particular philosophy is the one that provides us with meaning is an exclusive view, the only difference between this approach and the religious view is that we would end up in different rooms. We can go further and say that the atheist can also find meaning, but simply finds a different room. I make these points because I believe that you move forward in your thinking and your actions if you avoid locking yourself in one of these rooms and try and find an approach to discussion that favours being inclusive rather than exclusive.
There is one further viewpoint that can confuse, that is the one that claims there is no purpose or meaning to life, a kind of denial that life is anything other than a series of accidents. This I find hard to accept since if you choose to marry, to have children, to go on holiday, to change where you work or where you live, then each of those decisions could be argued as giving both purpose and meaning to life.
There is one particular quote from the Monty Python film on the meaning of life that I find useful as a starting point.
“Well, it’s nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
I don’t know whether the writer meant to be flippant or whether this was thought out as an answer, but there are important points that are raised. We carry out various daily activities that we regard as being meaningful, but we also think about meaning in wider terms. How do our actions affect others, and how do the actions of our communities, our nations, affect other communities and nations? Following a particular religion, or faith, may try and link these together so that what we do in our lives, our every action if you like, affects not only our lives but also the lives of others in our community, and in so doing will affect the lives of those in other communities. We tend to look for a meaning that goes beyond the self.
There is another view that deserves to be examined, mainly because this view raises a question about the difference that we show in our behaviour and the values that we claim are important to us. Many of us live in societies where the creation of wealth is openly championed as a purpose for life. Wealth itself then has to have a further purpose. What has been done over the years is to actually create a mirage of wealth that will give rise to a life of more leisure, more pleasure, a life in the sun, where our desires for new cars, large houses, and anything we wish for could even come true. Work is considered an unfortunate necessity to allow us to enjoy these pleasures, and children are needed to continue the species, but can be placed in nurseries, schools and colleges to avoid them becoming too much of an inconvenience.
I have slanted the view with deliberate bias, for many life is very different. Far too many people live in areas where life has little meaning other than to try and escape from conflict or from the threat of starvation, or both. The meaning of life becomes little more than a struggle to exist day by day in the hope that circumstances will change some day.
The importance then of asking what is the meaning of life is that we are also encouraged to consider the values that we really consider important in our lives. If the meaning for life centres on wealth creation alone then we should pause and ask many questions. How does such a view determine what is taught in schools and colleges? How does this affect how we prepare and treat a workforce? How does this affect how we treat each other, our views on healthcare, on old age, on those living in other countries?
Many of us will recall being asked at school or college what do we want to do with our lives? This was usually in the context of ‘careers guidance’ and really meant ‘where do you see yourself in the workforce?’. Our choice of study areas at college was largely determined by the answer to this question, particularly in the narrowing curriculum of the United Kingdom. The idea that we might be interested in life having a meaning was often considered to be answered by provision of religious studies in the curriculum, faith schools receiving rather more of this than non-denominational schools. I found this to be an interesting area to consider and study, but the reality was that a son of a farm labourer needed the qualifications to go further. I had no interest in spending my days as a manual labourer, though others did and I saw nothing wrong in that. In teaching we moved from inclusion of ‘General Studies’ to try and broaden the scope, in the USA the students were slightly more fortunate and the curriculum was not narrowed down until after school, sometimes not until after an Associate Degree.
I wonder if the reason that we are reluctant to explore the idea of a meaning for life at the school or college level is that this is seen as risky, that such an exploration might even challenge the wealth creation mirage that we are presenting. I am not arguing that the creation of wealth is wrong, this has been a part of human life ever since we first started to trade with each other. My concern is that there surely must be more to life than wealth creation. Having created wealth, how might this affect our values and form a meaning for life?
Then we have an assumption that once we are in the workplace the question no longer has any relevance. How many professional training days are devoted to considering the question of how the tasks we do give meaning to our lives? Are we ever encouraged to go on courses to explore such issues? How many managers spend time pondering the question, a question that affects how the workforce is treated, and how the products or services of the enterprise are used, how the industry affects the lives of others.
Perhaps the idea of encouraging people to ask questions about how the values they perceive to be of importance and how these values reflect the meaning they have assigned to their lives is considered far too dangerous an area to explore, in education, at work or in politics. Each of us has different experiences according to where we live and the dominance of particular cultures, but in the United Kingdom I have seen the last four decades produce politicians who have never attempted to encourage thinking about how values and meanings for life might affect others, the mirage of wealth has simply been presented as so bright that the light obscures anything else.
You cannot simply update your educational process with an add-on ‘meaning of life’ as if you were updating a computer. There has to be a radical change in colleges and universities that examines the values that are being given in our educational process to students. Without that examination we will continue to produce societies where corporations exist only to become larger, where politicians are more intent on holding power than improving the quality of life, where nationalism and patriotism, if wrongly interpreted, can lead to conflict and war, where hoarding of wealth increases inequality, and where religious beliefs divide communities instead of bringing them closer together.
The ‘meaning of life’ then seems to be related to our beliefs, and the values that make up that belief. How might this affect our education, our approach to the workplace, and our approach to how we see communities develop? Take a business course as an example and ask how the lives of others are considered. When a company decides to out source an operation is this done purely for the purpose of increasing profit, or do we encourage discussion to consider the effect on the existing workforce? Do we encourage consideration of possible exploitation of labour in other countries where the laws relating to a minimum wage or the number of hours allowed for working each week are poorly made and offer little protection from exploitation? When a company fixes netting to the outside of a building to stop workers jumping to commit suicide, does this sound like a company who has considered the value of life, or just the size of profit?
Provided we accept that education is not about filling empty vessels, called students, with carefully filtered ‘knowledge and facts’ and take a view that the education of students includes trying to encourage them to think and reason for themselves, then I believe we have to place within the system where that process can occur freely. Students need time and space to discuss the values they would like and how they provide meaning for life. This has to be as important as a foundation stone as mathematics, English or science education. How important are values in your college, or in your workplace?