On the way to get my afternoon caffeine fix, I passed by a large bulletin board and noticed a flyer for a public lecture, sponsored by a local atheist, agnostics, and humanist group. The lecture will discuss how people who are not religious find meaning in life. The speaker is someone who was formerly a minister or a pastor (no idea what the difference is or when it applies).
First of all, coffee is the meaning of life. End of story.
After having paid $2 for a meaning-of-life infusion, I thought more about the flyer on my way back to the office.
I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family, which was not religious. My husband’s family wasn’t either. My grandmother was nominally religious, which meant we celebrated Christmas and Easter at home, and they were fun occasions to get together with extended family and eat a lot. There was minimal, if any, religious aspect to these celebrations and we never went to church. All the core values I possess come from my family. What I see in the US, that so many people equate morals with religion, is completely mind-boggling to me.
Midlife is a very interesting period, which perhaps you wouldn’t think considering that it really is the age of plateauing. While in your youth you climb the hills of education, ambition, and romance , trying to achieve professionally and personally, the growth slows down for most people in early middle age. You see the panorama, with many obstacles now behind you; you see, fortunately or not, that there are likely no more big, exhilarating firsts in your future any more, not in the way in which the youth was replete with them.
But middle age brings a visceral grasp of what’s important in life. Here’s what it is for me.
- My immediate family, and enjoying my kids as much as I can while they are still in our home.
- Intellectual challenge, fulfilling the need to think and learn and brainstorm and discover.
- The people who need my help, one way or another, for some amount of time (my undergraduate and graduate students).
- Taking care of the body that is in good working shape right now, but alas won’t be forever.
- Reconnecting with my roots: Rediscovering things that gave me great joy when I was young, like drawing. Dusting off a foreign language I used to speak. Pretending to write, like I do in this space. Finding ways to reconnect with a family that is very far away and very expensive to see regularly.
While this is not a hierarchy, the people I love are by far the most important. Now, that does NOT mean that I should quit my job to spend every waking hour with my kids while they are still little (although I occasionally wish I could somehow bottle the moments of their cuteness and preciousness forever, as SMBC nicely captures). But part of love is letting people live their lives unsmothered. The kids are their own people, with their own abilities, interests, and friends; it is a privilege to be able to be there and love them and be loved by them as they are growing up. You don’t have to sacrifice ambition and leave your job for the kids, that’s not what the kids need from you or what they ask of you. Kids need love and care, but they also need space. And they are perfectly capable of understanding that they are loved deeply and profoundly, but that the world does not revolve around them even if they are the center of the parents’ universe, and that other people have jobs and obligations that they have to fulfill… But I digress.
So how do people who are not religious find meaning? A while ago I saw a documentary, and a woman in it said something that stayed with me. “Happiness comes from the experiences we share with the people we love.” Mano Singham, one of my favorite bloggers on Freethoughtblogs, says nicely in the linked post that precisely the fact that you have just one finite life is what makes all of it so special. To me, the meaning is about doing the best you can for the people around you and connecting with the wider world in ways that you feel are authentic; to me, it’s through doing science and other creative pursuits. And drinking as much coffee as humanly possible.
this is a really nice post!
And resonates with some of the thinking (whining) I’ve been doing about “what now, what next” as a childless, partnerless person at mid-life – because the essential focus on close family and children is natural but when all your friends are doing it and you aren’t it’s easy to feel like you messed up somewhere, and wonder what you should/could put in its place. Without the growth and transience of children around, it’s easy to feel like you are on a treadwheel going nowhere…
This is the topic I am currently thinking about most… how to find out what is truly meaningful to me, and then include as much of it into my life as possible. Life is too short to spend it on things that will seem meaningless looking back. I really like your list — learning, discovering, helping others, spending time with people you love and being creative. What impresses me is how you manage to rediscover your drawing, despite having such a full and demanding life. This is really inspiring.
very nice and timely for me. thank you.
Loved the way you articulated so many thoughts that cross my mind these days. I think for people who follow a religion, the path for a ‘meaningful’ life is well-defined. For others, as you mention, there is a need to know oneself very well. Deep down what one finds meaningful, inspiring and satisfying, it is very important to be in touch with it. Looking at the world around I don’t think it is as easy though 🙂
I really enjoyed this essay. Thank you for sharing it with us! I’ve been having similar thoughts recently, and I was nowhere close to being able to put my ideas into words until I read this.