Pretty bold title, I know. And the following text is neither as funny or insightful as Monty Python’s epic satire. Yet, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the meaning of life. I say “inordinate” because any time thinking can be contrary to the act of living. Living is activity, not the cognition of it. At the same time, it is, of course, our ability to consider, contemplate and evaluate actions that can lead to better living.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has been the poet/philosopher whose own dictums have guided my principles in this regard. Emerson once wrote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
I’ve followed that most of my adult life. I stumble often, but always come back to the theme of being useful. However, I don’t entirely agree with the prefatory statement that life’s purpose “is not to be happy.” Personal happiness is central to motivation. Joy can result from usefulness, compassion and honor. In fact, such satisfaction frames our purpose and meaning.
Once I became a father, everything came together into a singular, purposeful, mission to defend, protect, and to provide and my greatest joy comes from that usefulness. The meaning of life, I believe, comes from our commitment to hand each subsequent generation the tools, in fact, better tools, and more fertile soil from which to sow the seeds of their own ambitions.
When we fail politically, socially, or environmentally, we have failed in our purpose. Even those who do not have children are part of the cause for which we fight with honor and compassion.
This cause leads to navigating the socio-political landscape we have created. Donald Trump did not create our current political dysfunction, nor is he the first president to have corrupt impulses. His course is the result of decades of misdirection. Donald Trump is simply an inevitable demagogue at a confluence of disenfranchised populism and wild west media platforms.
The result of this toxic convergence is that our country (and our world) is facing a future with marginalized purpose. America’s path is focusing from an increasingly myopic view confined by fear and prone to selfishness and greed.
World history has seen Kings, Dictators, and misguided Presidents before, and all are vanquished eventually. But only after the people subjected to their narcissism rise collectively to reclaim the realm. Where we stand today, we are disparate, and we are not handing to the next generation the future our better selves imagined. In fact, we have set the stage for a less useful, less compassionate, and less honorable, society.
That is what is at stake and why my thoughts have been circling around purpose and meaning. My children, your children, anyone’s children, are our purpose and their future is less secure than (I believe) any time in history. We may not be facing the Black Plague, but there is a disease of our decency that has gone airborne and threatens to wipe out the fundamental meaning of our lives: To be useful, honorable, and compassionate.