There are many ways people would describe the point of their lives. For many the list would entail their own kids and, maybe, grandkids. Work is the source of meaning for many people. It might be their churches, synagogues or mosques. I am sure I cannot imagine some of the answers some folks might have to the question, what is the point of life?
Even if we have figured out the point of life for ourselves, it is not a given that we are living life in a way that makes it certain that we will achieve what we said was the point of life. Sadly, there are too many people who can tell you what the point of life is and, yet, in the next sentence confess they are living far from being able to pull it off. I felt this way when I was younger.
There are others who would simply not be sure what the point of their lives was. They can give you canned answers or, perhaps, some kind of platitude. But their heart really is not in it. For example, it is easy to say the point of life is to be loving. And then, some of us get honest with our actual lives and have to acknowledge we are anything but loving. Sometimes it is not intentional; more times than not, it is a matter of neglect. Love usually is not accidental. It normally requires some intentionality. And if we really think love is the point of life, then we have to intend to live in a loving fashion. Vowing to “do it tomorrow” simply means it never will get done.
I had been thinking about this when I ran into an interesting quotation from Audre Lorde in an article on the functions of love. The quotation assumes that at some point we begin to get a sense of knowing the point of life---what ultimately satisfies us---we can act in such a way to bring it to fullness. Lorde says, “For once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and fullness and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.” Let’s unpack this a little.
The first observation to make is Lorde does not talk about happiness. I am sure there are many folks in our society who would say the point of life is to be happy. Certainly, I want to be happy. I love being happy---most people do. But if the point of life is to be happy, then at some point we are likely to be unhappy and conclude there is no point to life. Again, I am sure most folks want to be happy, but when life inevitably terminates in death, it is hard to make a case for “happiness ever after.”
It is not fair to say that I have given up on happiness. But I do not think that is the point of life. I am happy to be happy, but there is some other point to my life. Notice the language Lorde uses instead of happiness: satisfaction, fullness and completion. In some sense all three of those words are about the same thing. I know in Latin the word, satis, means enough or full. And certainly something that is complete is in a sense, full. To this extent I am fine with saying the point of life is fullness---completeness and satisfaction.
The deep question, then, is what satisfies us? What makes our life full and complete? Surely, it cannot be things like money or other material aspects. Inevitably, the answer to that question will have more to do with intangibles like love or purpose or meaning. It makes no sense to be stinkin’ rich and live a meaningless life. Personally, I like to talk about the point of life needing to be deeply meaningful. I like the language of purpose. Rick Warren, the famous evangelical preacher, made millions talking about the “purpose driven life.” He was on to something!
The problem with words like meaning and purpose is they can be so general as to have little focus. Speaking personally, I have often said loving. Again that is general. More specifically, I want to love people---especially young people---into a place where their lives begin to acquire meaning and legitimate purpose. I help them understand and appreciate the inherent dignity of themselves and others. I want them to become peacemakers.
To go back to Lorde, because I am clear about the point of my life, I am able to choose the endeavors that bring me closest to fulfillment. Many of these endeavors center around teaching. But it is teaching in a broad way. I can be a teacher in the classroom and outside the room. I can create teachable moments almost anywhere and at any time.
I am grateful that I know this. Because I know this, I can do it. And if I can do it, then I have come close to the fullness of life, as I have defined it for myself. I am satisfied. Each day I want to go to bed satisfied with who I am and what I did. And some day I will be complete. I will have given all that I have to give. That will be a precious day. And by the way, I hope I am happy, too.