THE MEANING OF LIFE
10 TRIAD RESIDENTS PONDER THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION
Around mid-December, as professional responsibilities give way to family obligations to plan for the holidays, buy gifts and make accommodations for out-of-town guests, our sources become less diligent about returning our calls. The pace of art exhibit receptions, restaurants openings and band gigs slows (admittedly, theater is just hitting its stride).We, too, are shifting some of our focus to matters on the home front, and making plans to spend time with family and friends. To put it baldly, we’re looking for ways to give ourselves a break.It’s also true that the questions about integrity of elected and appointed officials, debates about investment in infrastructure and urban development, and who’s succeeding and failing just don’t seem as important right now. (Don’t worry — we’re only catching our breath, and will get back to strong, watchdog reporting early next year.)It’s natural this time of year for all of us to take a step back and reflect on what really matters.We’ve asked 10 individuals from across the Triad, including artists, clergy, a poet, a bartender and a university president, to talk about the meaning of life.It’s funny: No matter who you ask, achievement, winning and power never seem to make the list. Regardless of people’s religious background or professed faith, or whether they believe in God, relationships and compassion for others almost always figure in some important way in our understanding of what life means.
“I’m not really sure what it is, but I think what it is for me is to make good friends and share memories with others. To open your mind to the world, travel as much as you can, try new things and experience as much of life as possible. Put yourself in other people’s worlds. It gives you a better idea of what’s going on not just where you are. I’ve gone many places and wanted to do different things here because I want to create the things I’ve seen here.
“Be independent but try and help others as much as you can.
Make things easier for others and be kind. Create and be involved in the community around you, whatever that community may be. Local community is really important. Try not to worry about the small stuff and try not to rush as much, which is something I’m still trying to work on. Really just to share and respect the world and try to make it a better place for people in the future.
“I never was really sure what the meaning of life was until I started getting older. There’s not really a clear definition but you have to make things better for others and not just yourself. I’ve changed a little growing older and having different experiences has made me think about the meaning of life. I feel like when you’re younger, really, you don’t think about it. Some people maybe, but not me.”
Pam Cooper is a bartender at College Hill Sundries in Greensboro.
MARCUS KEELY, INQUISITOR
“When thinking about meaning and this idea of seeking meaning day to day and moment to moment as opposed to all of life and totality, what I’ve found is that a lot of meaning comes from getting outside of yourself and relinquishing this notion of control and power over circumstance and experience, and instead giving of your time and energy to others around you. That could be people you’re not a familiar with or your family. Showing love to someone else — giving this kind of personal love, moment to moment, day to day. In the search that I’ve been on and others have been on, for me the experiences that feel full of meaning are those experiences where I relinquish my control and give of myself and my energy and time to other people.
“While there is this idea of autonomy, self-will and being able to determine one’s future, a lot in life is unplanned and you cannot control it. There’s the perception of control to make sense of life, but when you relinquish that control, it makes you more open to enriching experience.”
Marcus Keely is the assistant director of the Charlotte and Philip Hanes Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University.
“It’s not a question I really think about very much, not because I’m just shallow…. I’m a committed atheist, have been all my life and the whole idea of whether there’s a meaning of life is kind of a bizarre concept to me.
“I can answer it in what I’m trying to achieve and accomplish.
Being an atheist, I think life is what is what we have. There’s no external meaning placed on it. Most of the things on my moral compass are not that different than a person whose moral compass is driven by faith. I try to do the right thing. I try to leave the situations that I encounter, especially as an attorney — to leave things better than I found them — to make a difference for one client at a time. It’s not such a grand scheme as it is one incident at a time. My work does make a difference in people’s lives whether it’s criminal defense or immigration law. I can do things for people that they can’t achieve for themselves. That’s important to me and that gives me great satisfaction.”
A partner at Elliott Morgan Parsonage law firm in Winston- Salem, Helen Parsonage practices criminal defense and immigration law. As a native Londoner, she is also an immigrant. Photo by Lillie Elliot.
LOVE CROSSLING, PUBLIC SERVANT
“It doesn’t take me long to answer that question. When I was in my graduate studies my professor asked me: ‘What does it mean to ‘be for’ a thing or a person?’ To me the meaning of life is to ‘be for’ other people, to be as outside of yourself as possible. In a day and an age when self love is supported — and not that I’m against that — I just think it’s important to make sure you’re not loving yourself so much that there isn’t space to love other people. I read a book recently by a guy named Bob Goff called Love Does. In one of the chapters there’s a statement, ‘I’m with you,’ and that it’s a selfless statement to say ‘I’m with you’ to others. The beauty about being around others who think like you is that it means that others are for you as well and it means you don’t have to focus as much on your needs.
“That’s the motivation for me to get up everyday, to think that some part of me is going to be for other people whether it’s my family, my friends, my coworkers or the nature of my job is to see to the human rights of the under-served. It’s instinctive for me, it’s organic. At the end of the day, we miss out if we’re not that way. Since we don’t know when any of us is going to depart this life, I think it’s really important being able to recall using it to benefit somebody else.
“I think my mother did this on purpose [naming me Love]. I’m a miracle baby actually. While my name has tons of meanings behind it, I remember her being very adamant about me learning to share, above all other traits that little kids should have. I have a hard time not being nice and I think it’s because of that.”
Love Crossling is the human relations director for the city of Greensboro.
“If there is any answer to the meaning of life to me personally, it is to communicate, to share experiences. I think that is what’s really important to me, especially with a sister [with autism] who has such problems communicating… it makes it difficult for her to experience life. Especially when it comes to the writing [or] as far as living any struggle I’ve experienced, it’s always come down to practice and persistence, as well as compassion and empathy.
“The thing I’ve learned mostly from poetry is mixed emotion.
That’s what dealing with life is all about. How do you deal with those mixed emotions? I see a lot of times with students I have, they sometimes don’t understand empathy. People talk about their daily lives but not necessarily the things that impact them. Maybe it’s because they’re too corny, maybe it’s because they don’t reflect on them.
“A lot of things that are so vital in life are about how we talk to each other, how we say things to each other. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to cope, either with the voices in our heads or with the voices of others, learning to communicate and learning how to interpret things.”
Fausto Barrionuevo is a poet and screenwriter who teaches at UNCG and graduated from the school’s MFA program. His was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2011 for his poem “Ground.”
DR. NIDO QUBEIN, MOTIVATIONAL
“The older I get the more I acknowledge that the meaning of life lies in one word: impact. One’s life is measured not so much in achievements but by the influence that we bring forth to people and environment in which we work and reside. So I used to think the word “success” was a defining word for accomplishment. Now, I know the word “success” means so many different things to so many different people. If somone asks Donald Trump the definition of success, he might say, ‘Making a lot of money.’ If one asks Ted Turner, he might say, ‘It’s building a media empire.’ If one asks Hank Aaron, he might say, ‘It’s beating the record of Babe Ruth.’ Albert Einstein might define success as ‘unraveling the secrets of the universe.’ Mother Teresa probably would have said that success is about feeding enough hungry people around the world and clothing so many who may be in need. The point is that success alone does not define the meaning of life with any degree of completion. So the older I get the more I understand that the meaning of life is better measured by significance, not success.
“And so significance is not about losing oneself in doing tasks, albeit that is important part of one’s daily responsibilities. Significance is not only about just setting goals, although that tends to incisively measure the results of our work. Significance is about truly defining one’s purpose on earth — that it matters at all that we live, it matters at all what we do, it matters at all who we are. So significance therefore is the true measurement of our impact on people we meet and organizations we get involved in.
“So for me success talks about fans, fame and fortune. Significance talks about your faith, your family and your friends. It is the latter definition that truly enables us to make substantive and substantial impact at every turn with every person and with a heart filled with love and compassion. So what is the meaning of life? It is the joy that we extract from not just doing good things but being the kind of person who chooses to plant seeds of love and caring in the minds, hearts and souls of all those who cross our path.”
Nido Qubein is the president of High Point University.
ANNA LUISA DAIGNEAULT, CREATOR
“The meaning of life to me is the meaning that I assign to it everyday.
I don’t believe there is an inherent meaning to life other than what I assign to it daily. I find a lot of meaningfulness in the details of my work. I get a lot of pride from seeing my projects come to completion, so that creates a lot of meaningfulness to me. And also I’ve learned as I get older to find satisfaction in the moment and to not always be searching for something that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve learned to become satisfied with what already exists and what I’ve already been able to do and find happiness in that.
“I do think about it a lot because when you do art all the time and anthropology it makes you very self reflective and analytical of society. I’ve realized in the past year or so I need to find satisfaction in my daily life. I used to always wait for something big to happen, like after I got my degree or got a job, but it’s not always going to be handed to you.
“We have to work meaningfully and compassionately with the people around us so our dreams can come true as well as everyone else’s. Finding collaborative ways to make positive things happen is really important.
“People search for an objective meaning to life, like an objective, abstract greater truth but the meaning of life is very subjective. It’s very culturally specific and specific to the society you grow up in, too, and your own meaning and sense of spirituality. The meaning of life is a very subjective experience. For me, finding meaning in my life is setting goals and taking pride in them when you achieve them, but also being satisfied with yourself and the little steps away and looking at and appreciating the tiny details that make life what it is.”
Anna Luisa Daigneault is a vocalist, composer and anthropologist. Find out about her main project at quillamusic.com. Photo by Bonnie Austin Stanley Photography
REV. CLARENCE J SHUFORD JR.,SPIRITUAL LEADER
“I do see it from a religious perspective. It is a relationship with the creator and living out his promise to us. The promise is to love our fellow human beings and in loving our fellow human beings we demonstrate our love to God, or the creator or however you want to frame it. In doing so we demonstrate how we want to bring about a better world.
“It’s just experiencing God’s presence and his inner peace. There may be conflict outside but there’s always his inner peace. There’s an old gospel song that says, ‘The joy I have the world did not give it to me and the world cannot take it away.’ “I’ve experienced inner peace despite the things I’ve seen or experienced. That gives life meaning to me because you just keep pressing forward and moving forward. I wish peace to everybody.”
Clarence J. Shuford Jr. is the pastor at St. Philips AME Zion.
RICHARD CASSIDY, CHRIST FOLLOWER IN DISCERNMENT
“The meaning of life is, it’s community. It starts out in the Hebrew Scriptures. Elohim created Ha’Adam, which is the plural one God created the community of humanity through life. And as I’ve visited other countries, the thing that always stands out is community.
“Last night, leaving the homeless shelter, most people walk out in a group whether it is someone who you hang out with constantly or boyfriend or whatever, it’s that human connection that we need. Even people without a lot of close friends, they often have pets. It’s that inbred need to love and be loved. That inbred need to love and be loved goes with our fellow humans as well as with God. There’s something about this spark in each of us that says this is just really complex and even just calls out for God. That’s in most of Scriptures, in the Hebrew, Christian, Muslim and Eastern religions. I myself am a Christian. If you look at the scope of the world religions, the Golden Rule is part of that — you recognize that you’re a part of the community.
“The two greatest commandments are to love your God with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself. These two things are above all else. Community with God and community with your neighbor are above everything else. Community, when we talk about that, my neighbor includes my rich neighbor, my poor neighbor, my middle-class neighbor. It includes my gay neighbor and my straight neighbor. My black, Hispanic and white neighbor. The neighbor I like the neighbor I do not like. It’s when we get together around a common table and share food and stories that we start to self identify with each other we see each other in each other’s stories, and that erases the otherness.”
Richard Cassidy is the volunteer coordinator and overnight monitor for the emergency overflow shelter in Winston-Salem. He is in the discernment process to potentially become a pastor.
SCOTT BETZ, DESIGNER“Negotiating our space with others is a challenge and it can cause fear. But what would we do if we were brave? What routes would we choose? What emotions and ideas would drive us? Would we seek honesty and harmony? Would we choose love?
“It is a beautiful arc between birth and death. The meaning of life is having the courage to love others in all their complexity.”
Scott Betz is the interim director at Center for Design Innovation in Winston-Salem. !