The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Death and the Miser, or Making Sure You Don't Leave the Most Important Things Behind

Committing to living is essential, even with the risk of loss

Meaning can be found in the strangest places.  It's not just the joyful things that help us feel our lives matter; often it's the most painful things.  It's a venerable paradox.  The more you dive into life and love those around you, the more you risk losing when death comes.  Yet, if you don't love strongly, fully, and heedlessly, life is hollowed out and is just a shadow of what it could be.

I've been thinking a lot about a column a fellow blogger, Todd Kashdan, wrote.  I'd encourage you to read it here.  As you might expect from a blog named "Curious?" this meditation on death is all about questions.  One of the things that hung with me was the deep question of why we care about what happens after people die.  Some part of me wonders, "why isn't this life enough?"

At the same time, I feel that pull.  I don't want to lose the people I love from my life forever, I want those cherished ties to endure and carry me through life.  They are the first thing that I think of when I think of what makes my life meaningful and fills it with significance.

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I was getting my kids' things ready for the school day this morning, and I looked in my daughter's backpack and saw an orphaned Valentine  The heart-bearing Transformer, all a-bristle with weaponry, was obscured by writing. On one side, scrawled with the blocky, clumsy panache of the brand-new writer: "I Luve You."  This message was from my son to my daughter.  On the other side, in writing I can only describe as post-modern hieroglyphics, was written: "I O RAWORORWAR."  This is my daughter's way of writing that she loves my son right back (no, we did not name him Rawororwar, though I'm kind of kind of liking the looks of it at the moment...).  I took some time to savor the memory of watching them trade back-and-forth this little, red rectangular homage to the tireless consumerism that pervades this modern world.  Looking at that little Valentine, I was overwhelmed and awestruck by the powerful simplicity of the love in their little hearts.  The thought of ever being separated from them was excruciating.

Would death be an easier pill to swallow if I didn't have them?  Maybe.  Death is just the stilling of our chemical processes if we haven't reached beyond ourselves in life.  But if we haven't taken the risk to enter others' lives and allow the vulnerability that invites them into ours, then it's just us walking around in our sack of chemicals, fluids, and bones.  What's to cherish about that?

Of course, as a former clinical supervisor once told me, 'the only thing we know for certain about relationships is that they all end.'  Death and the end of relationships both seem to spark prodigious works of creativity.  Think of all the great movies, books, and music that have been born of loss - Schindler's List, A Farewell to Arms, Mozart's or Faure's Requium. Over the past seven years, the indie band Cloud Cult (www.cloudcult.com) has released a series of albums that sort of chronicle the psychological trauma unleashed by the death of Craig and Connie Minowa's two year old son, Kaidin.  The songs on their most recent album reveal this continuing struggle:

When it all comes crashing down...try to understand your meanings...No one said it would be easy...This living, it ain't easy, oh...

"No One Said it Would Be Easy" - Cloud Cult

There is nothing easy about loss, there is nothing easy about reaching out, loving those around us, leaving ourselves naked to the pain that death and loss bring.  Yet, that is exactly what the meaningful life seems to demand.  More people say they derive meaning in life from relationships than from any other aspect of their lives.  Sometimes, though, we don't get enough time.  No one knows when the end comes, and we all crave more time to finish our business when the clock runs out...we yearn for that relationship to continue:

And when the angels come...they'll cut you down the middle...to see if you're still there...to see if you're still there.

And underneath your ribs...they'll find a heart-shaped locket...and old photograph...of you in Daddy's arms.

And then they'll sew you closed...and give you back to the water...from where we're all born...from where we're all born

And you'll feed the ghosts...and you'll feed the living...you will be a stranger...and you'll be a friend.

"When Water Comes to Life" - Cloud Cult

So, let me return to the question that's been haunting me, "why isn't this life enough?"  As I said in my previous column, I don't have a scientific answer to this sort of question, no one does.  I can't think of any way to collect data about the afterlife.  That answer comes from faith and beliefs. 

Why isn't this life enough? My personal answer is, "We should make it be."  You can't hoard your life or your love away...you can't take it with you.  Don't be a miser of your life; don't wait for one of those Hollywood deathbed moments to tell the people around you love them.  Tell them now.  Tell them tomorrow. Tell them every time the thought pops into your head. 

Meaning is born of risk - meaning is born of loving and living in the face of unavoidable death and annihilation. 

Would you have it any other way?

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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