One of the most asked questions about life is this: why are we here? It is a question that batters the human mind and breaks the walls of time, travelling across generations with its siblings: what is the meaning of life? What makes life worth living? What is the point of it all? Questions more mortal than the humans who have touched its unmoving puzzle in an attempt to piece it all together.
Maya Angelou reflected on it — in an interview by journalist Judith Rich — as something found by living fully, with courage. ‘I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it.’ Angelou observed. ‘You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvellous returns. Courage is probably the most important of the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues, you can’t say against a murderous society, I oppose your murdering. You got to have courage to do so. I seem to have known that a long time and found great joy in it.’
Holding the human species as one which is able to possess freedom of mind, John Steinbeck, pondering on what makes life worth living, in East of Eden (collected from The Marginalian), reflected through prose that: ‘At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against? Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.’
But when we walk backwards, a few feet behind the question of life’s meaning, way behind the meaning of life as something found by living with courage or the freedom of mind, we find a question that we first ought to consider before contemplating the meaning of life. It is this: how do we define life?
As a species whose existence is powered by an exchange between our body and the external world (oxygen and carbon dioxide in this case), life can simply be defined as a biological state that can reproduce, grow, and respond to its environment. As a constituent of several other elements, however, life is something that can perform a function. It is a phase of existence, a state on a scale with death, but, most of all, life is a force that holds the earth, and all elements within the earth have life. Simply put; life is beyond us humans.
As a higher species, we have a duty to live beyond ourselves. This is what Chinua Achebe meant when he reflected on the meaning of life — in a conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel — as a translation of what we do, how we live. Speaking primarily on storytelling, but in words applicable to all areas of life, he said: ‘I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of the meaning of life. That’s really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.’
His thoughts help us see that life is best lived outside ourselves, a sentiment shared by many thinkers who have pondered on life’s meaning, the same thought echoed by Carl Sagan in From The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, who observed that ‘we humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.
We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.’
Take one step closer to humanity’s contemplation on the meaning of life and it becomes at once noticeable that the answers around it are drawn from personal experience. This is a truth revealing that despite our shared experiences, despite the fact that we are collectively a canvas of personal experiences bearing the story of life, we are just as unaware of the answer to why we are here as we are to the question of where we go when we die.
All that matters is that we are here. You, me, and the entire network of human beings are here, now, breathing through this chaotic and uncertain life, dancing from its chapters and building pages within it for life to come. We are here, coexisting with other life forms that call us to recognize their need for harmony on earth.
Should we individually spend time in reflection about the sheer fact that countless human beings walked this earth for millenniums before we became, we become postured to see how short a life we are here to live; how, despite our ability to envision a certain future, we too will become a piece of history. We will pass into nothingness and make way for the humans yet to experience life, yet to ponder on the question: what is the meaning of life?
The Big Question
I’ve been thinking a lot about the point of life, a thought that became all too intense when I found myself bored of being here — bored enough to consider leaving it altogether. This state of self drove me to literature and caused me to reflect on being here, subsequently giving birth to this essay.
What you should read next:
As you think through the questions in this piece, here’s what you should read next: Consider what it means to be here through a life of hardship, of rejection, of loneliness. Then consider what it means to live outside ourselves.
*môy is the Gera word for the number 1. môy, in this Note, is used to represent the first month of the year, January. Gera is a West Chadic language genetically classified under the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is spoken by 200,000 people in Bauchi State, Nigeria, and is considered a threatened language.