02 JUNE 2018
The meaning of life
by Frances Williams: Editor of ReConnect Africa and CEO of Interims for Development.
The death of legends and leaders like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela gives us all pause for thought, appreciation and reflection. But so often it’s the death of those closest to us that can offer us lessons for how we live. The recent loss of a good friend has had me pondering about the meaning of life and the arbitrariness with which it is given to us and taken away.
If someone can be here one minute, full of life, energy, wit and anecdotes, as my friend was, and then gone the next – what’s the point of it all? What does it all mean and what does it all serve?
Philosophers, writers and thinkers have harped on this question for centuries and I’m not surprised that, as yet, no-one has come up with a definitive answer. Finding a consistent rationale for our lives can seem a nigh-on impossible task.
For those with faith in things beyond this world, our lives are a passage to a greater and better place. For non-believers, life is simply to be lived and that is the end of it. For others, it is less about looking for meaning and more about creating meaning i.e. doing something with your life and skills that benefits others or has a positive impact.
But how do you move from feeling a sense of futility to achieving a sense of purpose? From thinking that if we are all going to die anyway, then nothing matters to believing that since we’re all going to die anyway, let me matter?
If you sometimes wonder about the futility of it all, what strategies can help you re-engage with life?
As I write this, it strikes me that my dear, departed Pam would never have spent (wasted?) her time pondering on these questions. She was a do-er and had little patience for too much introspection.
Having survived one bout of cancer in her younger years, she lived her life openly acknowledging that she’d already dodged a bullet. When, three decades later, she received the diagnosis of another form of the disease, she shrugged and figured she’d had a good run. After reluctantly submitting to treatment, she refused point blank to do it again when, several months later, the symptoms recurred. Instead of giving in and taking some well-earned rest, she carried on working until her legs literally gave way, only days before she finally stopped for good.
Thinking about the meaning of Pam’s life, the answers to the questions I posed earlier start to become clearer.
- By practicing gratitude. Instead of feeling justifiable anger at being targeted twice by cancer, she was just grateful for the years she had been gifted, figuring, as she put it, that she had ‘had a good innings’.
- By giving service. Instead of taking to her sick bed or even putting her feet up, she carried on working because, she said, her clients relied on her and she couldn’t let them down.
- By managing expectations of life and happiness. Instead of asking ‘why me?’ Pam assumed ‘why not me?’ and carried on doing exactly as she wanted to do with her life i.e. whatever made her happy.
- By gritting your teeth, grinning and bearing it. Instead of complaining about her troubles and the chronic pain brought on by her illness, she asked about other people’s problems, offered her unique brand of pragmatic advice, and still managed to see the funny side of life.
Doubtless philosophers and thinkers will continue to debate this most fundamental of questions – the meaning of life - for centuries more to come.
In my opinion, they should have just asked Pam.