The Meaning of Life

It is a question that has plagued humanity for centuries: what the purpose of our presence on this planet is; not only as a species, but as individuals. What is the meaning of life? We are desperate for our lives to have been worthwhile; to make a difference; to feel we have achieved something, and have done what we were born to do. Some turn to religion, claiming to be individually valued by the creator of the universe; that He personally appreciates their heterosexuality and how they spend their Sundays; that He created the entire universe for this opposable-thumbed species that will probably never see most of it. Some turn to art, trying to find their purpose through brushstrokes and carefully selected words. Some do charitable works. Some devote themselves to achieving their desired career paths. Some strive to show love and compassion to everyone they meet.

Our species, apparently naturally inquisitive, is always searching for our purpose, our reason for being here, what we should be doing with the time that we have.  For we have lost the need to strive to survive, the fear and determination and exalted gasping relief that it brings. And so we jump from planes, consume poison, paint sunsets with machines wired to our ears. Whole nations getting through the day on caffeine. Mountainous buildings full of people staring at machines put together by people operating other machines, getting through the day to get home and drink poison and stare blankly at another machine. There isn’t a point to it all, a goal to which end humanity labours.

People running to prevent muscle atrophy and weight gain in this society where it is so easy to overeat, whilst elsewhere people starve. We no longer run because we must, run for our lives, run to kill and thus feed our children. We are hopelessly homogenised and domesticated.

The purpose of life is to itself exist and continue. Our ancestors battled to keep themselves alive, to raise their children so that they would not die before they had a chance at life. We have the same priorities, but they are usually easily fulfilled, and we need not spend our lives battling for survival in the same way. Today, most of us can live, and most of our children will live. We no longer have an inherent purpose.

But what this society gives us is security and time. Most of us no longer have to live in fear of starvation or dread of winter, and we no longer have to devote all of our energy to getting through the day with enough to eat. We have time to make our life mean what we want it to mean. We can carve our own path, find our own meaning and value in the endeavours that we consider worthwhile, the relationships that we choose to pursue. So many people in the world must still battle every day to survive, but we, through luck and circumstance, can choose our own fate.

With all our engrained cultured fronts, in the end were are just pissing, sweating, killing, eating creatures like any other animals, caring for our young and keeping the majority of the resources we can access for ourselves and our families; but with leisure time and the ability and callousness to slowly destroy the world. We have no collective purpose; we have not each a goal which we have been designed to fulfil. We have only the purpose and goals which we set ourselves.

The meaning of your life is born solely from your imagination and circumstance. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

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A creative piece in which a girl reflects on her emotions upon leaving secondary school at the end of sixth form.

The early evening sun plays across leaves and tarmac, and she stands alone, feeling curiously cut off from the chatter of the people around her. She glances back at the school, at the place where she’s lived out the last seven years of her life, where, she supposes, between that first day and now she has been changed a great deal. Somehow she still feels the same, though, torn between excited, fractious anticipation and a sense of both worry and loss, wanting to curl up into a ball and simply stay, here with what she knows, what she understands and can navigate.

Seven years filled with laughter and chatter and fiercely concealed tears. Friendships built brick by brick only to crumble, dreams fought for only to lose their appeal. Inspiring lessons followed by hours in which each second felt an age, where flies pelting themselves, uneducable, at panes of glass were a welcome distraction. The talk of real life beginning, of stepping out into the real world, of becoming her own person, all seems bizarre. What could have been more real than her time at this school? Emotions sharpened by hormones: euphoria, devastation, lust, despair, lethargy, hope. This has been her world, formed the greater part of the universe created in her mind.

She gives the school one final glance, trying to take it all in, craning past the hoards of bustling people. This moment should feel significant. This is the moment of change after years of the same bus, the same door that didn’t quite close itself properly, the same lunch hall, same corridors, same people.  Somehow both an ending and a beginning, but in truth all it is is a moment in time, a snapshot of her life. She can’t quite take it in. It doesn’t feel like an ending; it feels like she’ll be here on Monday once again, or at least by the end of the summer. She can’t imagine it, the so commonly discussed Future. This, now, is simply her life.

An eleven-year-old pushes past her, excited for the summer, knocking her with his book-bag and flinging a carefree “Sorry!” over his shoulder.

She smiles slightly, and then turns back from the school, glancing up at the transiently eternal blue sky.

Then, slowly, she walks away.

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This is a refined version of my initial reaction to a school trip to Ypres in Belgium, the site of a great deal of conflict in the First World War.

There have been times in my life when I have been sure neither how I should feel nor how I do. At the Tyne Cot Cemetery at Ypres, I experienced this acutely. The sense that I didn’t have the right to be upset. Having heard the figures in a lesson, that should have impacted on me enough. Why should a visual representation of a tiny fraction of the loss of life change the way I felt, when the figures had not? The constant attempts to reconcile logic with compassion, to balance them; almost to decide how to feel. Should an unnamed grave be sadder than a named one? Somehow it seemed so, dehumanising as it was, but, really, how is dying horrifically in an alien land at all improved by a correctly marked slab of stone?

I found that mostly I felt anger: at my own futility; at the pointlessness of it all; at the glorifications of war that covered a graveyard built through respect for the people that it killed. The First World War was not glorious, not a worthy cause, but a sickening, tragic waste of human life.

And wars go on.

The German cemetery that we next visited was worse. A vast mass grave at the entrance, inscribed with thousands of names, each representing a life, a person.

The graveyard screamed resentment. Of course, Belgium had been reluctant to allow its construction, considering the terrible treatment she had received from Germany. But each of those German soldiers was no different from those of Belgium, or France, or England. They were initially fighting ‘for their country’, pressured by propaganda, and then because they had to. Fighting to get home. They were all the same. And yet they were all individuals, with different people they missed back home; different attitudes to life and death and war; different ideas, hopes, dreams, all extinguished only too easily. Too often, the ones who order offences are the ones to sit back and watch others die.

I knew only too well that I’d shake it off, we all would. Following the German graveyard, we went into the town of Ypres for dinner. We were raucous, crazy; chattering and weaving and barely crossing the road safely. All too quickly, our conflict and frustration was relinquished.

‘We will remember them’ has never quite rung true. A promise than cannot be kept, made solely to placate people’s consciences. The bitter truth is that if we were to remember this world in its entirety all of the time we would destroy ourselves. And, of course, we do not remember them, but the concept of war, often glamorised. We never knew a single one of those men. And remembering war to prevent further conflict in the future doesn’t seem quite sincere when our men and women are dying and killing in the Middle East. And yet, I must agree that such a thing should never be forgotten.  At the time they dubbed WW1 ‘the war to end all wars.’ I wonder if they believed it.

The journey home, late at night, was less raucous, but any distress people had felt was rapidly dispersing. The horror of a hundred years ago had returned to the abstract.

They did not die for honour, or glory, or God. They died for the greed and pride of the leaders of their countries.

And, try as we might, we cannot remember them.

[photo of poppy taken and edited by me]

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