That’s the question everyone would like to answer. Why does it matter that we are alive? What difference do we make in the larger scheme of things?
This last question gives the secret away. The meaning of life is to belong to something other than ourselves.
The secret of meaning is relationship
If you ask people what is meaningful to them, they typically answer with a relationship. Many people say that family is what they find most meaningful. Others say that their religion, their relationship with God is what is most meaningful. Even for those who say that their vocation is what they consider to be meaningful, they probably value that vocation because it has a positive impact on the world.
In fact, this is just what meaning is. If a word means something, it’s because it is connected to a concept. A gift means something because it is connected to a good intention. If a package shows up on our door by accident, it means nothing. But if a package was sent to us because someone loves us, it means quite a bit.
Can we create our own meaning?
Neither the word or the package, in the examples I gave above, can choose to mean something. They mean something because people ascribe meaning to them.
It’s the same with us humans. My life, by itself, can’t mean anything. But if my wife cares about me, if I fill a role in her life, then I mean something to her. If my coworkers need me in order to accomplish their goals, then one of my meanings is to be part of their team. In turn, I give them meaning by caring about them in some way.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t affect our own meanings. If I never showed up for work, I certainly wouldn’t mean anything to my coworkers. And I can step into a role where I’ll mean something to someone—by having a child who is dependent on me, for example.
So meaningfulness—just like love—is a sort of dance. We can’t take meaningfulness for ourselves, but we can give it to others.
What if no one cares about me?
The sad thing is that, because meaning is given by others, not by ourselves, it’s entirely possible for people to withhold meaning from other people. Social outcasts, like people who are discriminated against, or maybe people who are shunned by a former religious group, have real harm done to them. That is why love is so important—hatred and indifference threaten to take away the very reason for someone’s existence. Maybe that’s why Jesus compared them to murder (Matt 5:21-22).
This is why God fills such a big void for us. God is love, and it is his wish to be in a relationship with every person. No matter who denies us a place, and therefore denies us meaning, God does not deny anyone unless they deny him. And he even loves those who don’t love him. That means that everyone’s life is of value and has meaning, because of God’s love for them.
How does death affect the meaning of life?
The central aspect of human existence, besides the fact that we are alive, is the fact that we will not always be alive. No matter how comfortable our lives become, we can’t escape our inevitable death.
A few years ago, when I was suffering from grief, I came to understand something about death. When those whom we love die, we grieve because we are no longer in a relationship with them. Since there is less relationship, there is less meaning. The value of our own existence suffers because they are no longer sharing it.
Conversely, when I die, it will break my relationships with everyone else. It is essential for me to live, if I am to mean anything or to contribute to the meaning of others.
That’s the terrible thing about death—it breaks things that made our life worth living in the first place.
Heaven gives us meaning
But God has saved us from the worst effects of death. Because he promises eternal life to all those who love him, death is not an ultimate end to our relationships, even though it is a terrible severing of good things. Our relationship with him, and with all those who love what is good, never needs to end. Life can have an ultimate, eternal meaning.