The Meaning of Life

 
As we settle into the new year and reflect on the past twelve months, we naturally recall the things that have made us happy, those areas of our lives in which we want to see improvement, and the meaning of life in general. Some see life as the culmination of a series of time-bound goals, the accomplishment of which imbues their existence with importance; others view this life as preparation for the eternal life of one’s soul — not as an end in itself, but the staging ground for the life after this one. Of these contrasting perspectives, one wonders which is the most useful in achieving a fulfilling life.
 
In some sense, people make plans and goals because they view time as a precious, finite resource that needs to be managed, tended, and never taken for granted. For entrepreneurs, to give an example, time is the most precious thing they can own. "You can lose money and get it back," they might say, "but a moment in time can never be retrieved." These people tend to think and act as if there is no tomorrow when it comes to accomplishing their goals. In turn, our society views them as particularly effective or powerful: They finish college early, get married early, and plan for an early retirement, at which time they can really begin to live life. You always know when you’re around this type of person; there is a sense of urgency to their actions that throws many people off guard.
 
But we also know driven people so intent on achieving their goals that they make expedient but questionable choices in life, often with devastating consequences. One thinks of professional athletes taking steroids, who are worse off after years of drug abuse than someone who may have taken the long road to success. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, for example, recently admitted to steroid use; despite having cheated by taking performance-enhancing drugs, Jones spent decades dedicated to training and becoming a world-class athlete. All that monumental effort went to waste because of the expedient choice she made, essentially in an effort to accomplish more in less time.
 
Others tend to operate at a more leisurely pace, living as if time were in limitless abundance. It may take them forever to complete tasks that driven people may finish in a short period of time (which the most driven among us may find extremely frustrating). If asked, they might say that "time and experience are two different things. You cannot rush greatness." Many of these people are also very accomplished, but they seem to totter forever on the edge of greatness, hesitant to take the plunge, until the moment has almost passed them by.
 
Why these vastly different approaches? The answer probably comes down to fear — fear of dying, the fear of running out of time to enjoy life or to accomplish goals. And yet no one escapes death, no matter how accomplished, disciplined, or effective one might seem. The more leisurely perspective probably acknowledges a certain amount of serendipity to life: that the best things are often the unplanned moments of joy, enlightenment, and fellowship.{mospagebreak}
Time is also intimately associated with progress. Everyone has said at some point, "In five years, I want to have accomplished X," or, "In two years, I should be making X amount of dollars." Because we conceptualize time as an orderly procession of minutes, hours, days, and years, we often think that life proceeds this way. As a result, we may become frustrated when it appears that our lives fail to follow the steady progression of measured time. Yet monumental events throughout history have often unfolded on their own time, according to no discernable timetable.
 
As a society obsessed with time, we often have trouble adjusting to this kind of progress. As a result, it becomes apparent that a more nuanced consideration of the meaning of life is called for. Fear of death — fear of time running out — may stem from uncertainty as to the nature of God and the continuity of the soul. Some eastern mystics, for example, consider this life to be mere preparation for the afterlife; thus, confident of a reward beyond the physical dimensions of time and space, they claim to experience a freedom from fears about mortality. Westerners often dismiss this outlook as unproductive, pointing to the fact that man was given free will and dominion over the earth in order to self-actualize. Many feel that being consumed with what comes after this life makes people ripe for exploitation by other, more materially motivated individuals. If you can promise people a reward after life, you might diminish their expectations for economic and social progress, and weaken their desire to improve their station in life.
 
But the opposite approach — viewing life as merely a succession of goals and milestones — seems equally devoid of meaning. After one has accumulated all of the accolades, gathered the degrees, and made as much money as can possibly be made, death still comes as surely as it does for everyone else. Some people feel that they can achieve immortality through their works — the buildings they have constructed, their contributions to literature, their work toward world peace. But even these are fleeting considerations: Buildings fall down, libraries are burnt, civilizations turn to dust, and even great kings are forgotten.
 
It all brings us back to where we started: What should be the goal of our daily efforts? Must they have some extrinsic value, or merely be ends in and of themselves?
 
The trick of living a truly fulfilling life is in balancing the two extremes — to live as if time will never end, taking it all in, overlooking nothing; and yet to act in each moment as if it were the last. In this way we can avoid making expedient choices that may harm us in the long run, yet act with constancy of purpose toward accomplishing all that is just and good.
 


Armstrong Williams is heard daily from 5 A.M. to 10 A.M. on WWRL’s Drive Time Dialogue (www.WWRL1600.com). He is an author, conservative commentator, and syndicated columnist. Visit his Web site at www.armstrongwilliams.com.

Armstrong Williams

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"The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast daily on XM Satellite Power 169 from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EST. Visit his Web site at www.armstrongwilliams.com.

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