Back when I spent considerable time hanging out with adolescents and young adults, I noticed how a few “big” or “deep” topics were discussed again and again. Sex and relationships, music, god, and the meaning of life. Other things were discussed, of course, but those four most often were the topics my friends easily got into depth on.
By and large my friends approached each of those topics in certain predictable ways. Moreover, those were the very same predictable ways I had approached those topics when I was their age. Some things never seem to change. For instance: It seems the very first question everyone at that age asks about god is whether god exists. Perhaps it’s only a bit later on in our lives that we ask first if it matters whether god exists. I was quite fond of seeing how my friends went at those four grand topics of adolescence in the same ways I once did.
On the meaning of life issue, among my friend’s standard approaches was to look for a thought or belief that could either create, or reveal, life’s meaning.
That approach can be fascinating. It assumes if I think the right things, or believe the right things, then my life has meaning. So, for example, if I believe in the right god or gods, my life has meaning. Conversely, if I believe my life is meaningless, then my life is meaningless. Perhaps there’s an odd appeal to that approach, for it seems to put the meaning of life almost effortlessly into our hands. We have only to think the right thoughts and meaning is ours.
Now, I happen to believe that approach is an adolescent mistake. I no more see how meaning comes from thoughts than I see how you take a wilderness hike by sliding your finger across a map of the wilderness. After all, thoughts are symbols, just like a map is a set of symbols. And symbols are not the things they represent. Life is not made meaningful just by thinking it’s meaningful. Nor is it made meaningless just by thinking it’s meaningless.
To make that point vivid, let’s first assume for the moment the Dalai Lama was onto something when he said, “What’s the purpose of life? I believe the purpose of life is to be happy.” If that’s so, then we might ask whether we are happy just because we happen to be thinking about happiness? I myself can think all day about happiness without becoming more or less happy than I already am. My thoughts about happiness are only symbols for happiness. They are not happiness itself.
Instead of searching for meaning in thoughts, I suggest one search for it first in one’s talents and skills, and second in the needs of the world. Where those two meet in harmony, there you will find your passion in life.
Our genuine talents and skills, of course, are firmly rooted in our nature — both our universal human nature and our unique individual nature. It’s important to recognize that because so many of us spend a considerable amount of time trying to develop skills we have little or no talent for, while perhaps neglecting to develop the skills we do have some talent for. But to be the best we can be, we need to look to our nature, discover our talents, and turn those talents into skills. And it’s worth pointing out here that a good coach or mentor can help immensely with accomplishing that.
Yet, it usually isn’t enough to merely turn our talents into skills. It seems people who do only that much still feel their lives are meaningless. We need a mission. And that mission comes from employing our skills to fulfill one or another of the world’s needs.
Those need not be grand needs. It’s not how big they are, but whether they are big enough to challenge us. By that I mean, does fulfilling those needs require us to develop our talents into increasingly well polished skills? A call center supervisor can be just as challenged as the president of a country to develop her people skills though she is fulfilling a very different set of the world’s needs than that president.
Of course, the needs we fulfill must be genuinely the world’s needs. I might be fulfilling a need by fetching my mail, but no matter how I slice it, fetching my mail is not a genuine need of the world, and it does not give me a sense of living a meaningful life. Again, I might be fulfilling some sort of need by getting drunk Saturday night, but that also is not a genuine need of the world, and it does not give me a sense of living a meaningful life. I don’t know why we humans must do something to fulfill the world’s needs for us to feel our lives have meaning — I only know that’s what we must do.
Happiness — not transient happiness, but deep, abiding happiness — seems to come in some part from finding our passion in life. And finding our passion in life is a matter of discovering where our talents and skills are in harmony with the needs of the world. This is a very different view, however, from the adolescent notion the meaning of our life can be found in our thoughts.