The Meaning of Life (and Death)

Source: Huff Post

Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”

I like to ponder the big questions worth asking. The meaning of life, and all that. Robert Fulghum (the “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” guy), once said that he asks the “What’s the meaning of life” question from many people since you never know who might know the answer. In my case, I enjoy asking these questions not so much because I expect any one person to give me the definitive answer, it’s rather that I look at truth, meaning, spirit, reality, beauty, love as transcending any one person’s understanding. So I like to ask the question from many people and synthesize their answers. I teach a large class of university students: a few hundred eager, skeptical, seeking, beautiful, wounded souls — in other words, people just like the rest of us. When I get a chance, I like to bounce some ideas off of them to see what I can learn from them. And these amazing souls have helped me figure something beautiful about that biggest question of all: the meaning of life. It turns out that the meaning of life is intertwined with death — but not as I expected it.

I asked them what they would do if their physician were to inform them that they had only two to three months to live. They started naming items off of their “bucket list,” places in the world that they wanted to visit, activities they wanted to engage in. Yes, getting laid (frequently) figures rather prominently in their list. Mostly, though, it was about visiting places: Grand Canyon, Paris, Hawaii, the beach, NYC, came up again and again. For some more adventurous souls, it was thrill-seeking activities: bungee jumping, jumping off an airplane, seeing their favorite musician in concert, etc.

I then asked these students what they would do if the same physician had told them that actually they only had two or three hours to live. There was an eerie kind of silence in the room. The same students spoke out, except that this time it was not about seeing places, or even activities. Time and again, it was:


The insight from these wise souls in young bodies got me to revisit a saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Die before you die.” I’ll confess that this used to not be one of my favorite sayings. A little too much death for my taste. I am more of a life, joy and love kind of a person. And yet I decided to dwell on this statement in light of the insights of my students to see if it would open up any deeper meanings.


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