What is the Meaning of Life
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WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE? Program 3 Why Are We Alive? by Ernest O’Neill
Yonder see the morning blink. The sun is up, and up must I, To wash, and dress, and eat, and drink, And look at things, and talk, and think, And work, and God knows why!
That was a poem that was written by A. E. Housman some fifty years ago, but it expresses what a lot of us feel about life today. That’s what we’re talking about at this time on this program each day. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What’s the point of it all? How come we ended up in this situation on this planet?
Yesterday, you may remember us saying that a lot of us answer that question by saying, “Ummm. I wish I had the luxury of thinking of such a high-flown philosophical issue as ‘Why am I alive?’ My problem is how to stay alive. That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer for the past forty years of my life.”
Many of us are in that position. We say, “Well, I don’t know why I’m alive, but I know I am. I know this world has only limited physical resources and I’d better make sure I get my part of the pie. So my job is to get a good education, to get a good job so that I can buy whatever food, shelter and clothing I need so that I can stay alive.” Of course we ended up yesterday’s program, you remember, by summarizing the answer in this way. We said, “Why am I alive? I am alive to get a good education.”
“Why am I getting a good education? So that I can get a good job. Why do I want a good job? Not only to fulfill myself, but so that I can get enough food, shelter and clothing to keep me alive.”
Why do you want to stay alive? “So that I can have children.” Why do you want to have children? “So that they can get a good education, so that they can get a good job, so that they can have enough food and shelter to keep them alive. So that they can have children, so that they can …” and so on.
Of course, the sheer viciousness of the circle fills us with almost a horror when we think of it. That lies at the base of the sense of futility that many of us feel in these days. Indeed, it fills many of us with that hopelessness with which we get on the bus, or the train each morning to go to work. We wonder why are we are doing this, so that we can keep ourselves on this treadmill or so that we can keep our children on this treadmill? Behind it all we feel we were made for security. We do feel we were made to be safe and secure.
So, we would say, “Well, the reason we do it is that we are just driven by a need. We are like little animals. We have an instinct for self-preservation and we can’t get anywhere above that.” We know we’re supposed to be higher than the animals, but, really, we live like little animals and we’re trying to establish our own security, because somehow or other there is deep within us a strange feeling that we were made to be safe. We were made to be secure.
Indeed, we might almost say there’s a deeper feeling than that. There’s almost a feeling that we were made to outlive this life. Yet we don’t know why we have that feeling. Part of the difficulty we have in conceiving of the fact that if we’re on a bus that is traveling towards a concrete wall that is going to hit after seventy or eighty years of our lifetime’s existence is that we have a strange other feeling inside us that makes us feel we will actually transcend that concrete wall.
We have some feeling (I don’t know that we’d call it eternity), but we have some feeling that we were made to live beyond the insecurity that we feel in this life. Somehow we’re trying to get at that sense of security by our jobs and our food, and shelter and clothing. We’re trying to raise this physical, mental, emotional and economic security to the nth degree, somehow hoping that by that means we’ll break through the roof and break into the final security that we think we were made for. But that becomes so ephemeral for so many of us that we don’t go too far in that direction.
But perhaps if we were asked why we are working away like little beavers to establish our security, we might in some moments of poetic fantasy begin to touch that kind of emphasis that maybe it is that we were made for a security that is beyond the security that we can actually establish. Of course, we are constantly tantalized, indeed tortured, by the thought that men and women who have done far better than we will probably ever do at establishing their own physical, economic and financial security, have failed miserably.
In other words, many of us who are trying to build up enough stocks and shares, or enough investments, or enough of a bank balance, or enough equity in the house, many of us who are trying to do that are continually reminded of the fact that men and women who have done far better at this than we have ever done, finally had to admit their insecurity and often died in the midst of their own insecurity.
Many of us can think of Howard Hughes, the billionaire in America who owned the Howard Hughes Tool Company, then parlayed it into what was really the most powerful armaments company virtually in the world, but certainly in America. You remember he had so many millions and billions that he hardly knew how much he had. Yet, our minds are frustrated and tantalized by the figure of that old man.
Old Howard Hughes, you remember, in his seventies, dying in the top apartment of one of the big hotels in England, in the midst of the Kleenex tissues that he surrounded himself with because he was afraid of dying from a virus as his father had done. He actually died of malnutrition, a thin, emaciated old man in the midst of his bodyguards, in the midst of all his millions. He died from fear, fear that he would die if he didn’t abstain from the right foods and protect himself from the right viruses and infections.
So, many of us are really haunted by that figure and we realize that after you’ve done everything you can to establish physical security, finally you can’t. You can’t be deaf. Finally it’s going to get you. Finally you’re going to die without any food inside you. Finally you’re going to die without your money around you, or without your clothes around you, or your house around you. Finally you realize if I’m living in order to establish my own security, I’m living in a fool’s paradise, because I’m never going to finally be able to establish security completely. I’m actually, finally going to be beaten by the system.
So, many of us answer the question “Why are we alive?” — we’re alive to stay alive. Well, the truth is we’ll finally be beaten by that. That is a course that is bound to be frustrated, because sooner or later we all die. Sooner or later, you’re going to die. It doesn’t matter how well you take care of yourself. You’re going to die.
You remember, I think, it was one of our famous British comedians who was also a drama producer or drama director and was a very able medic at either Oxford or I think it was Cambridge, and I remember him say, “Why is everybody so busy doing all this running and all this jogging? They are making life miserable for themselves in order to prolong the misery as long as they can.” For many of us that’s what we’re doing when we answer the question, “Why we are alive?” We’re alive to stay alive.
Really, finally, we won’t be able to do it. Finally, you won’t be able to stay alive. Finally, the system will
beat you. Well, why are we alive then? Perhaps you’d join me tomorrow and we will progress towards a real answer to this question.