Chapter 31 - The meaning of life

Billions of people throughout the ages have asked themselves the question, "What is the meaning of life?" Many people answer that question by turning to religion.

The problem with the religious perspective is that it squanders the meaning of your time on earth. Many religious people believe that this is the "meaning" of their lives right now:

    "If I am good while on earth, then when I die I will go to heaven where the streets are paved with gold and I will live with God in the lap of luxury and have absolutely anything I want or need for eternity! My time here on earth is a mere nanosecond compared to eternity. I just have to tough it out here for a nanosecond to get my infinite reward."
In this scenario, your nanosecond on earth pretty much has no meaning -- the whole goal is "heaven."

Think about where this sort of thinking can lead:

  • Example #1 - This sort of thinking can be seen in the actions of Islamic suicide bombers. They believe that, by blowing themselves (and others) up, they will be given as their reward a place in heaven with 72 virgins to satisfy their every whim.

  • Example #2 - The power of religion to completely warp the human mind can also be seen in a cult known as "Heaven's Gate." In 1997, 39 members of this cult all committed suicide together. Why? Because their religion taught them that by dying they would be transported to a space ship traveling near the Hale-Bopp comet. [ref] The meaning of their lives was wrapped up in this ridiculous fairy tale, to the extent that they would voluntarily and peacefully commit suicide.
This sort of thinking is fascinating. We all know that suicide bombers do not get entertained for eternity by 72 virgins. And we all know that the members of Heaven's Gate were not transported to a space ship by killing themselves. These two fantasies are obviously absurd. Yet billions of Christians believe that they are going to heaven. Christians for some reason believe that their fantasy is true, when in fact all three of these beliefs are equally imaginary. These three beliefs also show how cancerous religion can be. Instead of focusing on the here and now, religion focuses on an imaginary place and time that is a total fabrication.

Life's meaning

It is a fact that God is imaginary. You have proven that to yourself beyond a shadow of any doubt. What, then, is the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is simple and comes in three interlocking pieces:

  • You have been granted one human life. With your life you have been given approximately 30,000 days on planet earth.

  • You may choose to do with your life anything that you like. You, and only you, get to choose what you want to do with the life that has been given to you.

  • You give your life its meaning by choosing what you want to do with it.
That is the meaning of life. You, and only you, give your life its meaning.

What should you do with your life? You should pick whatever it is that you believe in, or whatever it is that makes you happy, or whatever it is that is most important to you, or whatever it is that you most enjoy doing. Then you should work to make it happen. Choose the thing or things that you want to do with your single, unique, precious, human life, and make them happen.

It does not matter what it is that you choose to do -- do whatever is important to you:

  • If it is your kids, then figure out an equation that lets you do what you want to do with your kids and go do it.
  • If it is saving the environment, then go do that.
  • If it is bass fishing, then go do that.
  • If it is cancer research, go do that.
  • If it is making a film about something that you feel strongly, go do that.
  • If it is entertaining people to brighten their lives, go do that.
  • If it is making lots of money so that you can buy more and more stuff, go do that.
  • And so on...
You can give your life whatever meaning you want. Pick whatever it is that is important to you. Decide what you think you can do to help human beings, as a species, move forward, and then go do it in whatever way that you think is appropriate. It is your life and it lasts about 30,000 days -- make the most of it.

The fact is that you, and only you, give your unique human life its own, personal meaning. You can choose to do absolutely anything you like. Each life is unique to the human being who designs it, and the way you define your life's meaning is up to you. This is how it always has been, and how it always will be.

Having said that, there one caveat that you should keep in mind: You can do whatever you want with your life, as long as you stay within the boundaries of what your fellow human beings will allow. It's got to be legal. For example, if you decide that the goal of your life is to murder as many people as possible, then the rest of us will do our best to stop you. The reason for that is simple -- your goal terminates the existence of other human beings. As in any game, there are rules that make it possible for the other players to play. The game of life has rules as well, established by your fellow human beings to keep things fair. See this chapter for details.

The power of working together

You might also keep this in mind: As discussed in chapter 30, it is a fact that people often get more accomplished when they work together. Let me give you an example to help you understand how that works.

A hospital puts human life into clear perspective. My son David has seen more than his fair share of hospitals and with him I have met sick kids of every possible description -- retarded kids, paralyzed kids, kids with amputations, kids in wheel chairs breathing from tubes, kids with cancer getting chemotherapy.

The kids with cancer are bald. They often vomit as the drugs are administered because the drugs are so toxic. There are babies, toddlers, kindergartners, teens. For some, their IV lines snake up their shirts to permanent sites in the chest because they are hooked to IVs so much.

A hospital shows us something important about human beings. A hospital is a facility designed to help other people. In a modern hospital there is a remarkable array of technology, and medical science understands more and more every day. All of that technology is designed to help people. We've built all that by agreeing it is important, and by working together to attack the problems that diseases create. When we put our minds and our resources to it, we can build amazing things.

The thing is, we see that same kind of cooperation throughout America. Let me give you a few examples to help you see what I am talking about.

I have food, clothing and shelter. At this moment I am warm at 72 degrees despite the outdoor temperature of 40 degrees F. I am able to drive less than two miles to three different shopping centers and over two dozen restaurants, including three all-you-can-eat buffets that cost less than $8 per person. I can shop in several grocery stores stocked with thousands of food products -- the most variety ever seen by humanity.

A huge array of products are available that make life easier and better:

  • I can watch 80 channels on cable with my TV
  • I can surf the Internet or play a game with my computer
  • I can call people on the cordless phone or my cell phone
  • I can wash my clothes in the washer and dry them in the dryer
  • I can play a DVD that I can rent for $3
  • I can take a warm shower
  • I can flip on any of the dozens of light switches when it is dark
If I get suddenly ill I can call 911 and a team of extremely competent people will be at my door in less than five minutes to transport me to one of the three modern, fully equipped emergency rooms within 10 miles of my home. If I get hungry I can open the refrigerator or the pantry and cook a snack or a meal on the stove or in the microwave. If I want to travel I can fly to almost anywhere in the world from the international airport that is 10 miles away. If on a whim I decide I want to, I can drive my car to Disney World tonight and shake Mickey's hand tomorrow morning. Since it is December, there is a Christmas tree in the living room with a pile of presents underneath, strands of lights decorating the front porch and a wreath on the door. The mail arrives every day. So does the newspaper. So do the packages from FedEx and UPS. So does a nice hot pizza containing a total of 2,500 calories if I order one and pay $10. There's a scale in the bathroom that tells me I eat too much. There's a thermostat on the wall that keeps the temperature just right. There are five smoke detectors on the ceiling that will wake me in case of a fire and let me and my family get safely away from the building. Then my insurance policy will pay for the damage.

My point here is simple: We take it completely for granted, but life in America is utterly amazing. Absolutely, utterly, amazing.

Who created all of this? Did God? Certainly not. People have created all of this by agreeing to work together. We have come together to create an orderly society that gets better and better through cooperation.

Think about the allies coming together World War II to fight evil. Or the space program in the 1960s and 1970s, where thousands of people came together to accomplish the impossible and go to the moon. Or any big political campaign that wins against the odds. Or a business that has a fantastic mission and vision. Or any charitable organization focused on accomplishing something good and worthwhile. When people are involved in projects like these, their lives are richer and fuller because they are working toward a common purpose with a group of fellow human beings. In those experiences we can find a powerful message about the meaning of life.

The meaning of your individual life is bounded by the accomplishments of our species. Although each of our lives is fleeting, our species as a whole is a chain stretching back thousands of years and stretching forward for an unknown distance. You are one link in that chain. Each of us contributes to the world. Our children inherit the world that we create.

What is the meaning of life? It is about loving and being loved. It is about helping and being helped. It is about giving and receiving, asking and accepting. It is about working with other people and allowing them to work with you. Life is about dreaming of something better, and then making it happen. For all of us now. For our children in the future. Life's meaning is about what we do today and tomorrow with the time we have available. It comes in thinking about that time -- that precious moment that is your life -- and making the most of it in a way that is unique to you.

The next time you are sitting at a traffic light, look over at the person next to you. Smile. That person is a fellow human being. You and he and six billion others mold this planet and create the future for our children. Together we create the path of our species.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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Section 1 - prayer Section 2 - The Bible Section 3 - Jesus What it means


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