“Vanity of vanities,” a wise king wrote about the meaning of life after extensive pondering. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” My piece is based upon his thoughts combined with my own. His saying expresses that “Everything is just a vanity”, or that everything is utterly meaningless.
“But Anima,” you might say. “Did you not choose the ‘on the fence’ position for this topic?”
Yes, my astute reader, I did choose the neutral stance. And you will discover why in due time.
Let’s begin with semantics, since we cannot answer a question without knowing the implications. “Meaning” is a baseline term that cannot become simpler, but knowing its relevance will help us. In the context we are using the term, it refers to having an impact towards a goal, or a reason. In summary, the word “meaning” denotes having a purpose or ultimate goal.
At a glance, life is inherently meaningless. Everyone dies and are (usually) forgotten, hard work results in riches, and riches lead to happiness that quickly fades. Stress and anxiety reap nothing but pain, grief, and restlessness. Many attempt to become champion of a skill, but being “the best” is a worthless pedestal built from giving value by comparing yourself to others. Like any form of power or prestige, it rises and falls like the tide. One ruler comes to replace another and forever onwards. Good people are treated like trash while vile people end up with respect. After all, everything is decided by chance: being in the right place at the right time. Life in this form is completely aimless.
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
So yes, the universe seems quite meaningless in its vanilla form. This does not mean people should resign themselves to a worthless life. I chose the neutral stance intentionally – you can give your life a meaning. I believe that everyone has a purpose, a very specific one, but most people either haven’t found it or deny it exists. That delves more into religion than my theories, so I’ll refrain from elaborating until later.
There is a purpose that you can choose to live by: a telos. The word “telos” itself means an “ultimate goal”, but in this context I am expanding the definition. A telos is an ultimate abstract life goal based around developing who you are. This is compared to concrete goals, which have finishing points, such as being “the best” at something. You need a continuous guide, relating to who you are rather than what you do. There are various faces of a telos, such as leaving a story for future generations, helping others to be successful, or upholding justice, but they are all the same. It is all about who you choose to be.
The telos that many live by is to change other’s lives for the better and behave in an honorable and upright way. If your telos does not fit with this, it is arguably meaningless. As a Christian, I believe one's telos is merely a smaller version of everyone’s given purpose: to honor and glorify God through our words, thoughts, and actions. This is my telos, guiding who I am through loving others and living righteously. However, I know many of us are of different religions or aren’t religious. And I won’t judge for that; we can all live with a purpose.
You can, of course, look further. I think one's telos is to love others and live honorably, but someone might say “If we all die eventually, and everyone else leads similarly meaningless lives, why bother helping others? Why not end our lives right now?”
There are few things that I despise, but that statement is among them. Life has no meaning without a sense of duty to others. I will grant you that. However, don’t you dare say the fragile essence of life is worthless. It’s worth everything, because in this world, the only valuable experiences outside living out our telos are to enjoy the small things. Food, drink, being with those you love, and other small temporary joys. Life means everything – because if you ended your life right now, everything would change.
Because your best friend would be punching walls and hurting for all their life, tears running down their face from thoughts of what they could have done to stop you.
Because your family would die inside, every joy they feel but a fragile imitation haunted by how much more whole the memory could have been with you still alive.
Because people like me would end up writing about you and other fallen stars.
Because your life does matter, because you are loved. Even if you don’t see it. Even if you yourself don’t give your live a purpose or value, others do, because you mean something to them. Worth and meaning are very different.
So enjoy the small joys, and live out your telos. Be content. Bring others joy, and experience it yourself. Live in a way that brings you and others happiness. Live honorably. Try to restore life to the weary. Remember that life may not naturally have meaning, but you and others give it meaning. That is why we live.
-- -- -- -- Author Note -- -- -- --
The man who I introduced was called “קהלת”, or the Qoheleth, but is better known as King Solomon. He wrote the book of Ecclesiastes after long contemplation of the meaning of life. I happened to read the book the night before the project’s writers started discussing this topic, and instantly knew that this would be a topic I would want to write about. Here’s a separate companion piece by me.
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