This Faith Perspectives column by Leader Kate Lovelady was printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on August 24, 2015.
Humanism believes that human beings were not consciously created by any force or for any purpose that we can determine. Rather, all the evidence suggests that we evolved through random mutations and by adaptation to our environment. Now that we’re here, and aware that we’re here, it’s up to us to choose what to do with our lives—how to live them, and also how to think and feel about them.
It seems important to most people to feel that their lives are meaningful. Which actually is kind of weird. Other animals don’t seem to get into existential funks and take up chain-smoking and writing bad poetry about the emptiness of their existences.
Biologically, our only purpose is to stay alive long enough to pass on our genes—to eat and sleep enough to be healthy, to procreate and bring up a child (or help to bring up a close relative’s child) to independence. Once we’ve accomplished those tasks, we should feel complete. We might prefer to continue living, if living is more pleasant than painful, but that extra time is just a sort-of bonus.
Yet, as the prevalence of midlife (and later) crises demonstrates, human beings are motivated by much more than simple biological survival of our genes. Whether our search for meaningfulness specifically evolved because it’s somehow adaptive, or whether it’s an accidental byproduct of our complex brains or self-consciousness, we don’t know. We just know that meaningfulness is as important to us, often more important, than food or shelter or sex.
Capitalism may be creating a rising standard of living, but not a rising sense of meaningfulness. And I think that’s because at least so far it seems to encourage selfishness, whereas most people actually find increased meaningfulness through caring for and mattering to others. Many people put up with jobs they don’t enjoy or working more hours than they would like because supporting their families makes their effort meaningful. Cleaning and cooking feel more important and worthwhile when we’re doing them for someone else as well as ourselves.
Author Wes Moore once interviewed the musician and activist Harry Belafonte about the source of his passion for social justice. Instead of giving a righteous speech, Belafonte said that it was just more fun to live that way—waking up and calling Nelson Mandela rather than his accountant made for a more interesting life.
Perhaps how we’ll convince more people to live in kinder and fairer ways, and in simpler and more environmentally sound ways, is not only by talking about the necessity and nobility of duty and sacrifice, but also by talking about how good it feels to live more meaningfully.
The activity where I’ve found meaningfulness, increasingly, is in organic native gardening. I physically enjoy it, and also when I’m gardening I feel that I’m caring for more than myself—I’m caring for the plants, of course, but also for the bugs and butterflies and birds and animals, for the quality of the air and for my friends and neighbors and my city. And I find that working with other gardeners on community projects feels even more meaningful because it widens those impacts.
The more I think about living a meaningful life, though, the more I’ve come to appreciate the Taoist attitude that you can drive yourself crazy trying to make everything meaningful and believing that everything is important. So I’m also trying to be more playful. Speaking of which, Lily Tomlin has a joke—“When I was young I said I wanted to be someone. I should’ve been more specific.”
Similarly, we say we want our lives to mean something. I think we need to be more specific.
Yes, we need to provide for our personal food and drink and shelter and clothing and entertainment; that’s part of who we are. But as human beings, meaningfulness is a feeling we get through deepening our connections to others, being useful to others, appreciating and being appreciated by others, and using our brains and bodies in solving problems that affect other people significantly. The more time and energy we can spend on making life better for each other, the more meaningful and enjoyable all our lives will be.
Kate Lovelady has served as Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis since 2005 and also serves on the national level with the American Ethical Union.