WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?

Can being unique give us meaning to our lives?

Program 5

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 end 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 realise 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 unique.

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 acknowledgement.

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 realise that when we go to cemeteries, we see the tablets there, of stone and the gravestones with the names on and we realise it doesn't matter how hard you try to get people to recognise 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 notice us." 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 mass, 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?"

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