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How Love Brings Meaning to Life

Love is not a proposition but an approach to living.

One of the greatest American psychologists, William James (1842-1910), once described his remarkable experience of inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. It aroused in him “the strongest emotion,” evoking a deep sense that he had glimpsed the meaning of life. Each time he was under the influence of the drug, he experienced an epiphany, but as soon as its effects wore off, he was unable to capture it in words.

The eminent physician Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) offered a similar account of his experience while under the influence of another powerful inhalation anesthetic, ether, except that Holmes once managed to write down the meaning of life as it appeared to him. When he came fully to his senses, he was disappointed to read the “all-embracing truth” he had recorded in rather straggling and ill-shaped characters: “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

As these accounts by two notable minds of the 19th century indicate, the meaning of life can prove rather mercurial. Despite our best efforts, it can elude us for years, and then finally, just when we think we have it firmly in our grasp, slip away. Such disappointments might be taken as an indication that our methods are faulty, or that we lack the intellectual or spiritual equipment necessary to attain such a vision, or perhaps even that there is no such thing as “the meaning of life.”

But the mere fact that something is difficult to attain does not render its pursuit pointless. After all, physical fitness and personal trust both require intense and sustained effort. And even if life’s meaning does turn out to elude us in the end, its pursuit might still offer benefits that make the quest more than worthwhile. Numerous poets and philosophers over the years have suggested that immersing ourselves in the journey may be more important than reaching the destination.

Socrates (470-399 BC), who is sometimes regarded as the first great Western philosopher, resisted the idea that he should be numbered among the sophists, teachers of rhetoric in his day who claimed to be wise and required payment from their students. He claimed that only an idiot or a charlatan would charge money for something that cannot be bought or sold, and that instead of possessing wisdom, he was a philosopher, one who loved and pursued it.

Socrates’ foremost biographer, if he had one, was Plato (428-348 BC), and one of Plato’s most famous dialogues is the Symposium, a drinking party in which some of the most interesting people in ancient Athens gather to offer speeches in praise of what they regard as life’s meaning, love. Socrates argues that love at its best is the longing for something beyond and above ourselves, the pursuit of which can bring out the best in us.

A similar idea is found in another foundational text of Western civilization, the Gospel of John. It is the only one of the four gospels in which Jesus (4 BC- 30 AD) issues a new commandment, and unlike many of the Ten Commandments, which include “Do not murder,” “Do not commit adultery,” and “Do not steal,” it is not a demand to refrain from a prohibited pattern of conduct. Instead Jesus enjoins his followers to “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

For both Socrates and Jesus, it seems, if life has some overarching meaning, it is bound up with love, and if we love at our best, our lives take on as much meaning as they possibly can. For both, the meaning of life is not a mere proposition, something that could be written down on a chalkboard, but a way of life, which cannot be understood once and for all but must be brought to life and lived out every day of our lives.

As a physician, I have enjoyed numerous opportunities to watch human beings – patients, families, and loved ones – search for meaning in some of life’s most haunting moments. When someone experiences a life-threatening illness, or realizes that they are dying or that they have been cured, or witnesses a new life entering the world, they often step out of their day-to-day cares and experience life in a new way.

Again and again, one of the themes that emerges is love. When we live for a time on life’s edge, we experience a new and deeper sense of what really matters most. And so often, what turns out to matter most about a day is not how much money we made or how many awards we collected, but how much we loved. Having realized what a precious thing life really is, we resolve to love like we have never loved before.

I would not claim to know precisely what love is, but the opportunities I have enjoyed over the years to read great books with students and experience moments of life and death with patients have deeply impressed on me three insights concerning love and the meaning of life. They are not the sorts of truths that can be written down on a three-by-five card and implemented. Instead they are more like intimations that point to new possibilities of living.

The first is one I have already alluded to. Whatever the meaning of life might be, it seems not to be a proposition that we can simply judge as true or false. To the contrary, it is a call to action, one that moves us from thinking and feeling to becoming. If such a truth were merely thought about but never acted on, then it would be no truth at all. In a sense, it is only in the acting and becoming that we stand any chance of knowing the truth in the first place.

The second concerns how we see others. So long as we see ourselves as perfect or even potentially perfect, we are cut off from one another. Only the complacent spend their time savoring the faults of others. By contrast, when we truly love, seeking out another's defects brings us no joy. Love is not proud but humble, recognizing that when the line forms for people in need of forgiveness, no one merits a spot at its head more than we.

The final insight concerns despair. To find meaning in life is not to blind ourselves to the many things that bring us grief, but instead to recognize that we are always vulnerable, life is a fragile and precious thing, and we are liable to despair precisely because we are spiritual creatures. When we recognize this woundedness in ourselves, we can begin to see it in others. The courage and compassion involved in doing so open the door to community, friendship, and love.

Socrates and Jesus both taught a great deal but wrote nothing, perhaps because they realized that to write anything down might contribute to the false notion that the meaning of life is a proposition. When presented with a question, each often responded with a question, not because they had nothing to say, but because they knew that to stand any chance of genuine discovery, we need to be drawn into the inquiry ourselves.

The authentic pursuit of the meaning of life is a call to service, the kind of service in which life’s meaning emerges from moment to moment. It is not something we understand so much as undertake, a search for opportunities in each day to see our lives not as burdens or curses but as gifts that come to life in the sharing. It summons us not to enter some altered state of consciousness, but to spend our days opening the doors to love.

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