When I first considered this quote, I liked it because it seemed correct, but I still wanted to be able to answer the meaning-of-life question. I imagined someone asking me, “What is the meaning of life?” and ran through different answers, but even the best one I could think of, “We are the meaning of life,” still didn’t seem satisfactory. I think that’s because I was hung up on the word “meaning.” I was personally more intrigued by the question, “What is the purpose of living?”
Well, my impulse is to say that life has no purpose. It exists for its own sake. I think most people consider this at some point, regardless of what they think of it. Even if they believe in an intelligent, purposeful God, most religious people would agree that it is virtuous to be humble, and they certainly don’t claim to have a complete understanding of what God’s purpose might be. I continue to believe we should celebrate the apparent purposelessness of life because it emphasizes that our lives are filled with personal choices and that we have free will. We decide our own purpose. To get to the heart of the issue, or so I thought, there is no logical reason to live, but there doesn’t have to be. It is purely a feeling, an individual sense of responsibility for ourselves and for others.
But now I realize my answer is incomplete. It doesn’t really respond to the motivation behind the question. The real questions are, “How should I live my life?” and, “What should I do?” You see, this vague but powerful sense of responsibility is inherent to being human. I like to say that empathy is the most broadly useful feeling, that it has the widest range of utility. This begins to answer the question, but it doesn’t answer why this utility is good or why it is important for life itself to continue, so it relies on the assumption that there are some objectives worth achieving. I used to point out that this assumption doesn’t need a logical explanation, that it’s a postulate, an emotion, and a choice. But what do I say to someone who doesn’t accept this postulate, who doesn’t share this emotion, and who isn’t inclined to make this choice? If life has no purpose, or at least no clearly logical purpose, what should we make of that? Why should we care about anything?
The answer, in my humble opinion, is humility. There isn’t any pressure to answer these questions ourselves as soon as we ask them. For a better answer, for a better anything, we need the future well-being of others and ourselves. So if someone asks, “Why should we care about anything?” part of the answer is precisely because they are asking the question. I would continue by saying that this should remind us on a broader level that we don’t have all the answers and that we haven’t necessarily achieved everything we should. There is some kind of desire in everyone, so on some level, we already do care, whether we recognize it or not.
On a practical level, we should just channel our instinctive drives to tackle these types of questions on a more specific basis. There’s no shame in being humbled by general questions. It’s fine to pursue answers to them, and to an extent, I think there can be a lot of fulfillment in that, but if we really care about any of the innumerable tasks beyond our individual horizons, then we must protect the welfare of our species, including ourselves as individuals, in order to preserve the capacity of others to help us out. That itself is a reason to care about life.
Every one of us is intrigued, confused, or just motivated by something, and it is the mysteriousness itself that motivates us to ask questions at all. It makes us humble, and it forces us as individuals to accept the value of other people’s input. Many people understandably describe this same humility using spiritual language. We are all capable of humility, and I think this justifies reaching out to each other for help. So let’s take life seriously. Let’s take responsibility for our individual happiness, for our collective welfare as a species, and for the safety of our environment. Deciding not to care is arrogant to the extreme. It’s a hasty reaction based on the impulsive, closed-off assumption that one’s own inability to conquer confusion makes their issue unresolvable. Humility is why we should care about life.