The Meaning of Life
This week we resurrect our semi-annual Meaning of Life issue as both a nod to the spiritual nature of this time of year and as a service to our readers, many of whom may have questions about the nature of existence.
The meaning of life is a mosaic, an infinitely faceted thing. Each life has its own individual meaning, and each life lived can help us understand our own lives, our own little corners in the grand scheme of things.
We’ve collected some of them here, and if you read the whole thing, you might be a little closer to understanding what it’s all about.
And while I’m at it, I’ll take a crack at it myself:
Life is a journey, meant to educate and enrich the individual. Pain, joy, sorrow, happiness — all are part of the human condition and are equally valuable as life experiences.
The people you meet on this journey are all part of the experience, and every single one of them has something to teach you.
The relationships you form with these people are part of it too. Creating love and sustaining it is how we mark off the miles on our trip.
Life is short. But love is eternal.
— Brian Clarey
English teacher, Greensboro Newcomers School for immigrant and refugee students grades 4-5
• I was put here for something, and I have found that that is to teach people. I have always had that in me, and I have chosen to act on that. When I was a child I used to play in the basement, and I recruited the other children in the neighborhood, and I was the teacher. I kept the space clean and made it a classroom. As I got older, I taught Sunday school. I taught Lamaze. I taught a parenting class. When I had children, I volunteered for an English as Second Language class. I became a professional paid tutor for a private company. When my children grew up, I went back to school and got my certifications current. Finally, after a lot of time I’m getting paid to do what I love. I made it my life’s work. I feel very sure that a lot of these experiences led up to this point. I am sure that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Barnes has been Guilford County Sheriff since 1994
• I watched a movie called City Slickers. Jack Palance in there says to Billy Crystal: “Life’s about one thing and one thing only.” Billy Crystal says, “What’s that one thing?” Palance says, “That’s what you gotta find out.”
• We can all say we’re ahead of the game if we got somebody to love and we got somebody to love us back, and that’s what we all ought to be striving for. [My wife and I] have two beautiful girls and six wonderful grandchildren. My wife said God gave us children to love and grandchildren to love us back.
Video editor, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in May
• Don’t ever ever ever find yourself stuck in a job or something that you hate doing — it’s much better to be broke and be happy with what you’re doing than be making a lot of money and being secure. • With the chronic and progressive nature of my illness, had I taken a different road I would be looking back right now and saying, “F*ck,, what have I done with my life?” Instead I never succeeded by many other people’s standards, but I never stopped dream chasing. I never took the easy way out and took the well-paying job that I could have easily gotten. I will be making no more than $750 a month the rest of my life and slowly losing control of my body. I don’t regret a damn thing. I did exactly what I wanted to do and felt like I was in control of my own destiny, and you certainly don’t need money to do that.
President High Point University
• My answer: I’d call Socrates.
• Well, I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe each of us is created for a purpose. And each of us must make the choice to travel the journey from success to significance. It is wonderful to be successful in business and in life, but it is truly purposeful when we focus on the impact that we leave in the path of others. So for me the meaning of life is about service to humankind. It is about being an active steward and a generous philanthropist. For me the meaning of life is about building bridges of understanding with all those who cross your path. It is truly about planting seeds of greatness in the hearts of young children and senior citizens and all these in the middle, because at the end none of us is measured by what we have or what recognition we received, and yet all of us are measured by the good we do, the inspiration we provide and the values we model.
• Let me put it this way: I think that the meaning of life is really not measured by fans, fame or fortune. It really is measured by your faith, your family and your friends — the depth of your faith the love of your family and the support of your friends — I mean that’s really what it’s all about.
Singer/songwriter, Israel Darling The Meaning of Life?
To lust to feel, no love with such zeal, savor the harvest and the fruits which you’ve peeled
To hunt, to kill, to destroy at freewill, what our neighbors children will only rebuild
To fashion a wheel a beast must guide, forging machine’s compelling ice caps to cry
To gamble, to deal, with dogmatic dice, like men who point guns with no answers of why
To discover, to mold, My surroundings and I, to raise a temple that sings to the sky
To be young to be old, a fool emerged wise, To answer this question in good honest time
Most men endure, some men survive, one man I knew played god with self-sacrifice
Observator, and creator alike, for neither will know the meaning of life
My enemy come nearest, tolerance pumps in my heart, must we keep fighting as though war is art
To my love my dearest, the most important part, is the secrets we share and the memories we chart for every moment speeds further from the start and our passion, our fire, will soon to depart whats now is ours keep it close to your heart
Y. TIN HWING
President, Montagnard Dega American Veterans Association. Former combat interpreter with the US Special Forces in Vietnam
• We conducted border surveillance. We tried to stop infiltration, and stop the flow of ammo and weapons. We tracked their movements, kidnapped and interrogated them. You know: the who, what, when, where, how. If they don’t tell us, we beat the shit out of them. If they capture us, they do the same thing. War is not cool, man; war is hot. Remember: One shot, one kill. You must know how to use your weapon, so you can shoot first….
• People should not have high ambitions. People should love each other. People should support each other. In reality, people don’t have that thought in their head. In Vietnam, there is discrimination between the Vietnamese and Montagnards. It’s the same thing in America — between blacks and whites, between whites and Asians, between blacks and Asians. I say to my friend: “What is wrong with the world? You cry the same. You eat the same. Your blood is the same color: red.” But people don’t like each other.
Greensboro City Council District 1 representative
• This is what I want for my Christmas present. I have a young man I’m helping. He’s semi-homeless. He doesn’t know from night to night where he’s going to be sleeping. We started navigating the human services agencies together. We went to one agency. They tell us: “We don’t deal with homelessness. We get ’em jobs.” We drove back across town to Goodwill; the person wasn’t available. I drove him to welfare reform. They gave him a bus pass. We went back to the first agency, and they gave him a big stack of papers. He can’t understand these forms. They say, “Take him to mental health.” What he needs is a case manager; he can’t negotiate all this stuff because he’s had a head injury. They say, “Call this number to make an appointment….” All I want for Christmas is for him to get to the first point. For me the meaning of life is that those of us who have need to understand that there are many folks — they’re not bums or derelicts — that the system is too hard for. I’m thankful for what I have, but also feel just a little sad that there are those of us who don’t understand what it is to not have. When we had our Christmas gathering at work last week, I went up and hugged my boss because I have a job. I went and gave blood last week. A woman asked me: “Can you help me? I haven’t been working since February.” I can’t imagine how I would feel if I hadn’t been working since February. Those of us who have need to look around and see who we can help today. I went to Hardees and bought two meals for the price of one for the two of us. That only cost me two dollars. Even if you don’t think you have much, you actually have a lot. With this young man, I said, “Please don’t forget to get on the bus.” Part of his difficulty is that he has memory loss. I’m going to be in Winston-Salem tomorrow, so I can’t be there with him. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope that he gets to his assessment.
Artist, entrepreneur, proprietor, Lyndon Street Artworks
• I tend to think in metaphors so I see the meaning of life as a singular thing. You are like a raindrop, and when it hits the body of water it creates a ripple. It’s about inspiring all the people within your ripple — that for me is one of the greatest meanings of life: that I inspire all the people within my circle.
• It’s about reaching out and constantly building your depth of character. You could talk about all the bullshit about being the best person, the best dad — it’s more than that; it’s about constantly moving yourself forward, looking forward.
• The pause is everything in art because it’s that one moment in time when everything stops — you sit there thinking… the fact that you have an opportunity as an artist to get somebody to take that pause and think for a moment – that’s one of the greatest thrills of being an artist.
PROGRESS A. LOYD
Writer, former drug dealer
• I think the meaning of life is ultimate freedom, not just physically, but freedom of mind, body and spirit. We have a tendency to become imprisoned to different situations in our life: job, car payment, wife, kids. Within different elements of life, we need to find the freedom, not the encagement.
Instead of the bad that you think, I’m sure you can also find two goods. You’re alive to go through these things. You complain about not making money at your job, but at least you have a job. Everyone complains that they don’t have anything to eat. I’m sure you have something in the house to eat; it just might not be what you want. People complain that they don’t have anything to wear — mainly women. You have something to wear; it’s just not what you want to wear. There’s the old saying about the man who complains he has no shoes until he meets a man with no feet.
Joines has served as mayor of Winston-Salem since 2001
• The meaning of life to me is to be relevant in all that matters and to have made a difference. There is a Cherokee Indian saying that sums this up: “Live your life so when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”
• The answer I’ve always liked the best — I wasn’t there at the time, but I was told my little nephew asked his father:
“Why are we put here?” And his answer was: “To be good to other people.”
DR. PETER C. GRAVES
Senior minister, Centenary United Methodist Church, Winston-Salem
• If you believe that life has meaning, you find it in faith but you have to find the specifics to make it fit. Our relationship with God and other people and we need to find a cause to which we can be committed. I find that having my faith in Christ is a cause to which I’m committed, to share that good news, but for other people a sense of meaning comes from being committed to a political idea, maybe the search for peace, maybe the search for [eradicating] climate change. Any of these kinds of concerns can give meaning to life, to feel that you have a significance. The meaning of life is to make the world a better place and to prepare ourselves for a richer and fuller life beyond the grave.
KALVIN MICHAEL SMITH
Convicted of the 1995 assault of Jill Marker, currently serving up to 28 years at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury whilesteadfastly proclaiming his innocence.
• The meaning of life is truth. Truth is light. The unity of good people who do not tire in finding the truth is warmth. When truth shines brightly, justice is found always. When truth is dimmed, injustice is the result always. The meaning of life is truth.
CHRISTIAN B. MILLER
Zachary T. Smith Faculty Fellow and associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University.
• Is there a purpose or meaning to our lives which can make them ultimately fulfilling, and if so, where can it be found? Philosophers have different opinions on these questions, but in my Christian view there is an ultimate meaning to life, which can be found in a religious context. More specifically, it can be found in a relationship with a perfectly loving and good God. Such a relationship can help shift the focus away from what is only in our own self-interest and more towards loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Funeral director, Precious Memories Pet Funeral Service in Greensboro; former NC Highway patrolman
• It’s been my experience to find out life is short. It has no age discrimination. My personal philosophy is to take advantage of every day because it’s evident tomorrow may not come. That applies to humans as well as pets.
REX LEE BROWN JR., RICHARD DOCKERY
Both homeless, former drug addicts, Brown has been diagnosed with cancer and glaucoma
• Brown: Even though I got this here cancer, man, any day I wake up is a good day for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself. It’s just something God is showing me; He’s telling me to hold on and keep on striving. He’s testing me now. He’s testing my strength now. I pray to him every day to help me hold on, too. It’s been a good journey, though…. I’m just grateful for my God of understanding that’s got me here for a reason this time. I know that for a fact, man. I’m just grateful to be here today, man…. God didn’t bring me this far for me just to lay down. He’s got the last word on this cancer. • Dockery: The meaning of life today for me is I don’t try to get it twisted no more. I thank God every morning that I wake up, and I thank Him every morning that my homeboy [Brown] here wakes up with me. Even though we fussin’, arguing all day, it’s a good fussin’ because I know we love each other. I really can say that. I don’t know how you would explain that but I guess the meaning of life for me today is friendship. It’s Samaritan, you know how the good Samaritan in the Bible did. That’s just like this place here; it’s like the good Samaritan to me…. This is where I found freedom.
ED E. RUGER
• I could just say family and friends are the meaning of life, but that’s a little too easy. It’s believing in yourself and chasing your dreams; that’s what life means to me. To me that dream is my music and like Tre’ Stlyez always said, “Music is life.” I live by that. Music has always been a huge factor in my life through good and bad times. It was my own little world that I could escape to when I needed to get away. It was also the motivating factor in make my life better and making the changes I needed to make in order to become a good friend, father and a stronger person in general. Who knew that my dream, something no one ever took seriously and made jokes about, would take me this far? I did, that’s who! From lunchroom freestyles and cyphers on the block to hundreds of shows, thousands of fans (I call them “fam”) and even a little bit of TV work, thanks to a great friend JJ. Basically, what I’m saying is believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams, no matter what anyone else may say!
• The first thing I thought was “Celebration!” and then, I thought, “meaningful work.” We are given gifts and they are uniquely different. To discern your gifts, and then, find a way to use them, is to celebrate the life you have been given.
Dean of the Divinity School, Wake Forest University
• To address the “meaning of life” in 250 words sounds like a line from a Monty Python movie. But the Christmas season lends itself to impossible questions and simple/complex responses. For me, life is inseparable from grace, that mysterious sense that life is gift; that experiences overtake us that we neither deserve nor understand but that shape our better natures and offer us opportunity for unexpected growth and change. My own experience of grace is, because of time, place, vocation and conscience, inseparable from the story of Jesus of Nazareth and a sense of his continuing presence in the world. Amid my own struggles, limitations and humanness, grace remains the door to whatever faith I dare to claim. It is also grace made tangible in my family, remarkable mentors and 30 years worth of students who shared with me the vulnerability of learning. It is the grace I received from history in works such as Augustine’s Confessions with its 4 th century affirmation that even when I did not know it, the grace of God was there. Such grace is not an entitlement; it is a gift, often unrecognized in the give and take of daily life but sustaining nonetheless. And, if life has meaning at all, then grace demands action. Jesus tells those haunting stories in which the people who seem the farthest from grace — prodigals and public sinners — are the ones overtaken by it in the end. We are to return the grace we receive.
Environmentalist, slow-food proponent, farmer
• I used to be a Big-Picture guy, maybe I still am, but I’m better now with smaller scenes. I tried a monastery, bare bones simplicity, urban communes, doctoral studies and even fasting. I didn’t find it! • Could it be, I say to myself, “There is no Big Meaning, just moments of clarity?” Like when I connect with someone, or do something exceptional, or do something unexceptional and don’t worry about it. Maybe I’ll notice a detail, or take a new point of view, or empathize with a stranger. I bite into a ripe fig. Wow! It tells me I’m alive.
• There is a general drift to my life: I am more at home on the earth, just here; I’m learning to be more generous; and I respect myself when I relieve the hardship of another person.
• In effect, it’s love.
Refugee and immigration program director, Church World Service
• At the end of the day, life is not fair. Not here, not anywhere. The world is heaped high with injustices that make you want to scream and cry and give up hope and if you take a moment to really see what’s happening on our watch — it leaves you with a sick, punched-in-the-gut feeling that never seems to leave. I’ve spent much of my adult life working with some of the world’s most vulnerable people — the kind of people for whom being alive on a day-to-day basis seems a sort of incomprehensible feat. I can’t take that away. And I know that fighting “the good fight” means losing most of the time. But for me, the meaning of life is in fighting anyway.
• In my work with refugees, I have had the privilege of being surrounded by people who possess the radical conviction that they are more than the sum of their circumstances. Every experience I have had, every relationship I have formed, has served to reinforce this idea — complacency isn’t an option. The meaning of life for me is to take this amazing gift we have been given — a beautiful and broken world full of pain and potential — and to do everything we can to mold it into something a little better. I am here. The least I can do is to ensure that when I leave, the world is a little better for my having lived in it.
CHRIS KELLY, CHRIS DEMM
Kelly and Demm have hosted the “Two Guys Named Chris” morning show on Rock 92 since 1999.
• Kelly: Whatever I think is right, I try to do the opposite. So far, it’s worked out.
• Demm: Change your socks more than once a day. Trust me — you would not believe how awesome it feels. Such a small thing makes a huge difference in my day.