Description: We are searching for personal acceptance and fulfilment
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
Searching for Personal Acceptance
by Ernest O’Neill
What is the meaning of life? That’s the topic we’re discussing together at this time, on this station each
day. What is the meaning of life? Really, why are we alive? What’s the purpose of your being here? How come we
ended up on this planet? What is the meaning of life? And, during the past few days, we have tackled some of
the answers to that question, which probably you yourself have given at different times.
Many of us say, “Well, that philosophical question is too cosmic an issue for me, but I can tell you I am
alive. I am alive just to stay alive. That’s it. I haven’t got any further than that.” Many of us, of course,
are in that position — where really we don’t answer the question philosophically, we just answer it
practically. We say, “Why are we alive? We’re alive to stay alive. I’m trying to get a good education, to get
a good job, to get food, shelter and clothing, so that I can stay alive. That’s about it.”
“I realize that it’s just an exercise in futility. I’m going to end up dead; I understand that. Finally, the
grim reaper will get me, but I’m going to stay alive as long as I can until that time.” Of course, that’s what
causes a lot of us the angst that we feel, way at the back of our minds. It causes the sense of worry and
defeat that we see in each other’s eyes, way at the back, when we look there.
We find that many of us are really living what many of us see, as a tale told by an idiot, because we’re
trying to stay alive, just to stay alive! We know that we’re better than animals. We know that we have a
reflective, self-critical faculty, but still we are behaving like little animals. We’re just eating because
the food is there. We’re climbing the mountain, because it’s there. We’re staying alive, because it’s there.
We don’t seem able to get beyond that.
Others of us, of course, have a different answer. We say, “Well, we don’t know why we’re alive, but there are
four billion others in the world, and they probably feel the same way as we do. We feel we’re pretty unique.”
It is interesting most of us feel we’re unique. Most of us feel in some way we’re different from everybody
else. The truth is, actually we are. There’s nobody quite like you in the universe. There has never been
anybody like you and there never will be anybody like you. So, you’re right, in a sense, saying that you’re
The problem is nobody else seems to notice it. So many of us answer the question, “Why are we alive?” by
saying, “Well, we’re alive to get other people’s attention. We’re alive to get other people to give us some
value, to give us some sense of self-worth.” Our self-esteem comes from what other people think of us. We
think we’re important. We think that we’re valuable, but nobody else seems to notice it. So, our job is to get
other people to notice it.” And, from our earliest days in kindergarten, to our day when we received the gold
watch, after 30 or 40 years of faithful service to our company, we’re bent on trying to get other people to
give us recognition, to acknowledge that we’re here, to establish some sense of value.
The problem is nobody seems to be able to give us that sense of value. We try and we try, but it doesn’t
matter how many people we dominate. If we’re bosses, or if we’re directors, or managers of operations, it
doesn’t matter how many little children we tend to get to think we’re important. If we’re teachers or if we’re
parents, somehow we never seem to get enough attention, somehow we have to get enough recognition, and enough
Somehow we always have trouble with our self-esteem or our sense of self, of self-worth. Somehow we’re always
seeking peer approval and never getting enough of it. We seem like little cookie monsters, who want a pat on
the head, or a stroke, or a cookie, and never get enough to satisfy us. So, in a way, we find ourselves
doomed to frustration in answering the question the way we do.
Of course, it is further exacerbated by the fact that we notice how few people now talk about John Wayne, how
relatively few people talk now about Richard Burton, how few people now seem to even remember that there was
such a person as Anthony Eden, how few people now talk about Jack Benny or Bing Crosby, in spite of the fact
that there was a time when everybody in the country seemed to know those names. They were household names.
Yet, it’s amazing when we reflect now on how few people discuss these people that got recognition. If anybody
got recognition, they got recognition. If anybody got approval, if anybody had name brand recognition on the
street, it was these people. Yet, how few seem to remember them.
Of course, we realize that when we go to cemeteries, we see the tablets there of stone, and the gravestones
with the names on and we realize it doesn’t matter how hard you try to get people to recognize you, to approve
of you and to acknowledge you, somehow, finally, you are forgotten. So, we answer the question, we’re alive to
get people to notice us. But, it’s amazing how frustrated we begin to feel with that, because we never do seem
to get final recognition.
Finally, we seem to go out like a light and nobody notices us. Yet, we cry aloud from the bottom of our
hearts, “We are important! We are important! Somebody please notice us! We’re unique; we know we are. We know
somebody should value us. Somebody, somewhere should value us. Somebody, somewhere in this universe should
Yet, it seems very difficult to get noticed. The society, of course, in which we live, continues to make us
feel even worse by treating us as a consumer statistic, or as a cipher, or as a number in a computer. As mass
society becomes more and more massive, as the numbers in this world grow, so grows our frustration at our
being treated just as a cipher, a number or a consumer statistic.
We hate more and more the world as it becomes, filled with more and more people who are trying to get the same
attention as we are. And, of course, that’s what makes life even worse for many of us. We discover that many
of the other four billion are at the same game. As we’re trying to get recognition, so they’re trying to get
recognition and it’s not long before we’re filled with jealousy and envy of each other, because of the
attention that somebody else is getting. Of course, the whole mass media operates on the basis of that.
Indeed, the whole of the world of commerce operates on that basis.
Make yourself different. This dress will make you stand out in the crowd. This toothpaste will give you sex
appeal and will give you a sense of being unique. This car will gain attention for you. We know that we’re
being played upon. We know we’re being used. Yet, somehow the feeling deep down that we were made to be
noticed is so rooted in our very nature, that we rise to it like the little cookie monsters and the little
puppies that we are. We rise to it again and again.
Why are we alive? To get recognition. To get attention. To get noticed. Those are some of the reasons many of
us have for being alive. Some of us don’t answer like that at all. Some of us say, “Well, we don’t really know
why we’re alive, but while we’re here, we’d better make things as happy as we possibly can. We agree with you.
It’s not going to last too long, so we’d better make the most of it while we’re here.”
We may not express it in terms of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” but in a sense that’s what we
think. We think, well, we’re here to enjoy ourselves. We’re here in some way to be happy. As G. K. Chesterton
expressed it, we believe happiness is somewhere between the peace and the calm and the serenity of Walden Pond
and the glorious excitement and exhilaration of “The Arabian Nights.” Somehow or other we should be able to
produce that combination.
Western man looks not for absolute peace and serenity, because that would bore him to tears, as Pascal said.
But he tries to get some of the excitement and the exhilaration of the Arabian Nights, without it being
absolutely extreme, either, because that would bring us such insecurity that we could not bear it. So, some of
us say we’re not sure why we’re alive, but at least let’s be happy while we’re here. Next week I’d like to
look at that just a little before we finally begin to approach the answer to the question …”What is the
meaning of life?”