What’s the meaning of life?
Shortly after the Trump Tower opened in Manhattan, I had lunch with the cousin of the late King Hussein of Jordan at the upper level restaurant.
He was a well- educated man, and somehow our conversation turned to the subject of the meaning of life. And, much to my surprise, he assured me he had the answer which he learned from the desert-dwelling Bedouins. He then told a story about a man who was desperate to know what the meaning of life is. Like Buddha, he left a life of opulence and, for years, traveled the world seeking the wisdom of wise men of different beliefs in different countries. Finally, during a session with a Hindu mystic in India, the revelation of life’s meaning struck him. At this point in the story he paused which did increase my curiosity, stared intently into my eyes and proclaimed, “Life is a foundation!” I hadn’t any idea what he meant by that but, because of certain cultural sensitivities, I smiled and remained silent. Since then, I’ve periodically thought and wondered about this Bedouin riddle frequently discussing it with others without success. I also wondered how the Bedouins knew about all these faraway places.
Over the years, I’ve surveyed a broad spectrum of opinions regarding the meaning of life. A representative sampling is the following:
“Life is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes
“You are born, you suffer and you die.” Joseph Conrad
“Life is one dammed horrid grind.” Charles Dickens
“You fall out of your mother’s womb; you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.” Quentin Crisp
“You are born and you don’t know why. You are here and you don’t know why. You go, you die. People suffer.” Woody Allen
“One thing that I teach; suffering and the end of suffering.” Buddha
“Life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” William Shakespeare
“It’s a very short trip. While alive, live!” Malcolm Forbes
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
“Love life, above everything in the world… loves it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“We are restless, oh God, until we rest in Thee.” St. Augustine
“We must free ourselves to be filled with God.” Mother Theresa
“Life on earth is only as preparation for our eternal home, which is far more important than the short pleasures which seduce us here.” Muhammad Ali
“Christians affirm that God, the all-powerful creator of the universe, became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. He offered us hope of an eternal heaven. I believe he is the answer to every individual’s search for meaning.” Billy Graham
Before I go on, I must tell you a story which happened at the beautiful Quisisana Hotel on the island of Capri. I was sitting by poolside trying to read a medical journal but couldn’t concentrate because of a heated conversation going on in Italian between an attractive lass in her mid- twenties and a big, hairy chested balding man in his mid- fifties. What jumped to mind was the hairy ape of Eugene O’Neil’s play by the same name. Anyway, she was lamenting how life was dealing her a dirty deck of cards. Copious tears were flowing on her tan cheeks. Then she, with imploring eyes searching for answers from the hairy ape, cried out, “Perche? Perche?” which in Italian translates into “Why? Why?” The hairy man paused, raised both of his hairy arms toward the heavens and proclaimed, “Non c’e il perche!” which means, “There is no why or answer to her suffering.” She continued to sob and gave him a bear hug. Then I thought of an old great late friend , Dean of Hahnemann Medical College, Joseph Di Palma. One of his many mantras was, “The truth is brutal”. I’ll probably never forget this scene because of its classic Italian passionate directly-to-the-point drama.
About three years ago I began to conduct my own informal personal, unscientific survey on different folks ranging from my barber to one of the world’s most brilliant mathematicians. To repeat, this was not a statistically designed survey which results could be quantitated but aren’t most things in life this way? The results can be roughly divided into three categories: sex, “I don’t know” and various spiritual religious beliefs mostly in the afterlife, all three mindsets which are currently dominating our culture.
I found the opinion of a 15 year old lad particularly illuminating. I asked, “Son, what’s the meaning of life?” He answered, “To live!” I then asked,” What’s the purpose of living?” He answered, “To die!” The crispness, clarity and impact of his response left me at a loss for words, and I changed the subject.
So then what is the meaning of life? Those who are religious, in a real sense, are fortunate to have certitude as their companion which is an immense crutch in confronting the constant problems of life. Those of you who are not, you must shed life’s outlook of W.C. Fields, probably the greatest humorous cynic of yesteryear, who wrote,” Smile first thing in the morning. Get it over with!” and replace it with my recommendation, “If you wake up in the morning and are not looking forward to the day, though tough to do, move your rear end and do something about it!”
Returning to King Hussein cousin’s riddle, after many agonizing years of trying to solve it I recently discovered it! In Proverbs of the Old Testament wise old Solomon wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the fountain of life.”