Terry Eagleton puts it well: the question, “what is the meaning of life?” is a “momentous question” that happens to be “inescapably funny.” It is funny, of course, because it’s totally absurd right from the start. Even the assumption that there could be an answer is absurd. After all, every life is a special snowflake influenced by never-again-to-be-repeated passions, decisions, revisions and regrets. It even seems possible that if two people lived the same life, they could come to the same juncture and diverge right there, one turning left and the other turning right, for no reason besides the very fact they are two different people. When L.C. decided not to go to Paris in order to stay with Justin during the finale of The Hills, it seemed just as possible that she could have gone the other route. Each of us faces a million decisions, some consciously taxing and others simply routine, and leads an individual life, entirely distinct from our peers living next door and down the hall, and even more distinct from other members of our species living across the globe. It would be absurd to assume these lives could all boil down to a single meaning.
Yet we throw ourselves against the question anyways.
Perhaps it is not so absurd. Maybe the similarities outweigh the differences, and the other members of our species are also our brothers. We all have two hands and one heart, and maybe the differences all boil down to instrumental errors that vanish after appropriate rounding. So, to look for the universal meaning of life requires looking at what is left after the boiling.
Among the bones, I have discovered a few potential starts toward answering this question. Today, I shall address only one: the universal human appreciation for napping.
Modern people, namely, my people, generally assume rest, a la Sabbath, is an old and, more importantly, outdated tradition. After all, we no longer have time to rest, seeing as we have work/reading/four-year planning/iPhones/YouTube clips of otters holding hands. But, seriously, we don’t have time to rest in this fast-paced world of ours–in fact, we don’t even have time to walk, which is why the Segway is so popular. In the agrarian culture of yesteryear, of course, people had time to rest. They just asked the pests and weeds to take the day off, and, following their contractual agreement, the pests and weeds complied.
I suspect the reason we reject rest as a valid use of time is because it doesn’t really fit into the central pathology of our culture: work and/or material gains are indicative of our value as human beings. Whether or not we operate as if we know the meanings of our lives, we follow a de facto philosophy, and the de facto philosophy du jour is that money and work create our value as individuals. But, after a moment’s reflection, I think it is fairly clear that we don’t want to actually believe this.
It’s a common refrain that Stanford students are bred to pursue opportunities that will become resume points. But I don’t think any Stanford student, or Yale student, or really any person ever, anywhere, thinks, “Hey! That’s me! I really do think the be-all end-all is my resume!” Instead, we’re meant to identify with the jaded critic who is involved in things he or she cares about sincerely. And “sincerity,” by definition, isn’t really quantifiable. It certainly implies, though, that our critic would stay involved with the Stanford Albino Harbor Seal Rescue Program whether or not it led to a resume bullet point, and thus material gain in the future.
This, for me, is evidence that we are not happy with material gain as the meaning of life. Centering your life around work and money is attractive insofar as it allows your self-defined center to remain seemingly in your control. Especially at a school like Stanford, it certainly would seem that you really do have all the opportunities for getting a great job and achieving financial success at your disposal, if only you would reach out and take them.
But, by my lights, not only do we suspect money is not all there is, making the central objective unworthy, but we learn by experience that it is patently false that we can control everything. So, getting back to my starting point: no, I don’t think napping is the meaning of life. But it’s not money either, and maybe we can get closer to what it is by learning to let go a little bit, and even by realizing that the world will go on whether you are checking your e-mail every 15 seconds or snoozing on the Oval.
Thanks to Paul Taylor for sending my scattered thoughts in this direction. Send your analysis of L.C.’s decision to firstname.lastname@example.org .