Blake Snow

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The meaning of life: 13 things I learned from the world’s greatest thinkers

I don’t always study philosophy, but when I do, I make it count.

Case in point: A friend and I were recently discussing the human condition over email. Exhilarating stuff, I know. I’ll skip to the best part.

Basically, we decided that humans struggle to internalize both complex and simple realizations. Complex ones because they’re harder to grasp, and simple takeaways because we’re usually too distracted by temptations, desires, and pleasures to see them through, even if we believe in them (or so argues Aristotle; more on him later).

At this point, I asked my buddy, “So if humans struggle to comprehend both complex and simple ideas, what in the HELL are we good at?”

His reply, “Entertainment. And nothing else.” Full stop. The gravity and strategic double periods of his remark made me do this:

MGM Studios

MGM Studios

At which point I enrolled in a 36-course undergraduate class from Smith College. Not exactly. But I did download the audible version of the classThe Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Greatest Thinkers, from Amazon!

Having already graduated (go, fight, win!), I did this solely for my own enlightenment. Little did I know how much impact professor Jay Garfield’s masterful curriculum would have on my worldview, existential outlook, and shared beliefs with others.

Here’s what I learned: 

1. Religion is an attempt to inspire moral strength. Why do humans need moral strength? Because we’re too distracted by our desires to live a virtuous life. Aristotle said this first. My friend Josh said it second. In other words, understanding virtue is the easy part, but our natural or otherwise acquired distractions often transfix us from realizing it. As this poignant scene demonstrates, even the most pious among us have our temptations. With exception to their glaring abuses of power at times (“By their fruits ye shall know them”), mature religion exists to encourage good morals.

2. Most religions agree with each other. In terms of providing a moral compass, most religions point in the same direction, be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or something trendy like non-theistic Humanism. They may articulate and prioritize their tenets differently or even avoid formalities such as church attendance. But with notable exception to anarchists, most religions and philosophies exist to strengthen morality, self-worth, and fulfillment.

3. Laziness and cowardice cause sustained immaturity. You wanna know why so-and-so never grew up,? Laziness and cowardice, according to the world’s greatest thinkers. Often but not always one in the same, laziness and cowardice is why we don’t think for ourselves; why we outsource our thought process to other talking heads. As Immanuel Kant argued, enlightenment is “daring to know” thyself. It’s having the courage to use your own understanding; the freedom to believe without others binding our thinking. As Steve Jobs eloquently put it, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” That’s how we mature our minds. The body will take care of itself.

4. The good life is a genuine, responsible, devoted, and active one. If you want to lead a happy, flourishing, and meaningful life, you must be true to your inner self, as mentioned above. Nearly every great thinker and many religions admonish this. In opposite terms, the hedonic treadmill isn’t authentic. It’s insecure group think. And you can’t be extraordinary, which post-modern philosophy argues gives meaning, while following the herd. So devote yourself to virtuous passions. Be persistent. Remember that the kite string (aka wise but limiting responsibility) enables flight and buys us more precious time to live. Strive for perfection, progress, and self improvement. Repent. Most of all, be the hero (not the villain) of your own autobiography, as Nietzsche says.

5. Secure your own oxygen mask first, then others. Along with previous therapy, this course reminded me to be selfish with my mental health but selfless thereafter. After all, you can’t serve others if you’re badly wounded. That’s not to say you should wait for perfect health before helping others. But you should be breathing normally. That’s the baseline. That’s how to avoid becoming a burden. Once you ensure that, you should devote much of your time serving others, whether professionally or voluntarily. To do this, you must understand that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You won’t understand this unless you humble yourself (aka no one’s beneath you and everyone has it hard), participate and become a member of multiple communities, and consider the lives and agency of those you come in contact with. To do that well, you must respect other’s beliefs, even if you don’t agree with them. You must help them become not as they are but what they are capable of. You must not be controlling (i.e let others own their mistakes after encouraging, supporting, and comforting them). You must lead a devoted life of duty, according to the world’s most lasting perspectives. That’s key to fulfillment.

6. Contribute to the world as a craftsman; take from the world as a participant of leisure. If you’re living authentically, you’re already contributing to the world as a master craftsman. If not, see nos. 4 and 5. Whatever role you decide to pursue, be able to say that the world was a better place that you were here, that you lived. Be an artist, even if you’re more of a left brain kind of person. Not that you have to be creative, but you should create and not just take. When you do take, don’t follow a scorched earth policy. Live in harmony with your natural environment as best you can. Appreciate the world’s wonders; its landscapes, seascapes, sunsets, and seasons. As a social creature, be a part of society but extraordinary within it. That doesn’t mean you have to be a trailblazer. Few are. But you should put your own excellent twist on your chosen calling or title.

7. Question authority but also respect it. When I was a sophomore in high school, me and buddy (the same Josh mentioned above) disregarded the accepted practice of standing for The Pledge of Allegiance one day. “You must stand!” the teacher demanded. “Actually, one of the beautiful things about this country is that I don’t have to stand,” I replied like the smart aleck I was. Even though I was sitting due to laziness, I was determined to make a point! Anyways, the teacher sent us to the principle’s office. Lectures were giving and grievances were aired. But thankfully, truth prevailed and we were allowed to sit during the pledge the next day with no lasting punishment. After the teacher unexpectedly and admirably admitted to being wrong — something I still respect to this day — I started standing for The Pledge again. I share this story to distinguish questioning from challenging. We should always question authority in our minds and sometimes challenge it when it matters most. If you always challenge authority, you run the risk of losing your sanity by way of constant consternation or becoming an outcast in society. So choose your battles. Sometimes you have to play the seniority game and earn your stripes before you can change the world.

8. Seek truth, wisdom, joy, and authentic excitement. To find meaning and happiness, you’re gonna have to consume more nutritious books than low-caloric ones. Same goes for trivial listicles (like this!) or life hack articles on Buzzfeed. More than that, you’ll need to draw on your own experiences and lessons learned. You can’t do that if you passively watch a lot of TV or passively let life pass you by. Constructively speaking, you must listen to music more, dance more, be alone with your thoughts more, and always question the source, especially if it sounds familiar. In terms of joy, strive for things that excite you in meaningful, lasting ways. Not fleeting things like drugs, sex, fame, comfort food, and money. To keep things even more interesting, be spontaneous once in a while, if not most of the time, expert thinkers say. And be wary of self-induced suffering that kill or otherwise imprison your spirits, namely greed, lust, impatience, hatred, idleness, gluttony, envy, and especially arrogance.

9. Accept involuntary suffering as a necessity to happiness. One of my favorite anonymous quotes goes something like this: “Everything happens for a reason. And some of those reasons are because you are stupid and make dumb mistakes.” In other words, much of suffering is unnecessarily self-induced. In this case, less is more. But some of the suffering is involuntarily felt as the result of other people’s agency, poor decisions, or “acts of God” as lawyers say. While these things are never easy to accept, they always give context to our happiness. In other words, you cannot have highs without lows. You cannot have great art, life, and beauty without suffering. Or so say the world’s most enduring perspectives.

10. Ignore mass advertising because it ignites greed and artificial desires. As a minimalist, I consciously do this. But I was surprised by the overt condemnation many post-modern philosophers have for mass advertising. Their logic makes sense, however. Mass advertising, i.e. “everybody should own one of these,” promotes unnecessary consumerism, greed, and dependence on the upgrade treadmill. In that sense, mass advertising ignites modern suffering or feelings of inadequacy that previous generations weren’t exposed to. This isn’t to say we have it worse than other generations. We have it better. But we can have it even better if we avoid undue influence by mass advertising. So DVR (but not too much!). Ad block your browser. Add your name to the Do Not Call Registry. Opt-out of deals and spam, even from sellers you like. Say “no thank you” when retailers ask for your zip, phone, or email. And wait until you have a legitimate need before shopping. A note to any salesmen and marketers in the room: Please note my use of mass advertising. I believe targeted advertising is not only superior, but appropriate. Even more so if you approach it like this: “Hi, human. I sell this thing for a living because I believe in it. It’s benefited myself and others you may know. Are you the right person to pitch? If no, do you know someone who is? If yes, is now a good time?”

11. Love begets profound meaning. Humans have many things other animals don’t; the ability to empathize and sympathize primary among them. Doing so, however, takes an open heart. How can you have an open heart? Marry, procreate, take unpaid stewardship over people in need, be a friend to many, be kind and generous, be the best surrogate parent or guardian you can be. These are all excellent vehicles (some obligatory, others voluntarily) that enhance our ability to love. Science can’t fully explain love. No one can. But all mature philosophies and religions admonish love as a necessary trait for a life worth living and a life worth having.

12. Have faith; release the mysteries of life to a higher being. I have trouble relating to atheists as much as I do blind believers. Neither have conclusive evidence of the origin of life and nary a smoking gun. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. So you might as well at least be agnostic, but not for too long. They’re so darn non-committal! That was a joke. The science, however, does point to significant benefits of not only faith in things unseen — a trait both believers and atheists share — but faith in a specific supreme being, flying spaghetti monster, whatever. It’s why old people turn to God.

As I recently wrote, “Atheists and agnostics aren’t gonna like this, but people that believe in a supreme being have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress, and suicide, and their immune systems appear to work better. ‘To a certain extent, adherence to a religion allows people to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power,’ says one researcher. So have faith. Or don’t and die sooner.”

Granted, many modern and post modern philosophers abandoned God after the great (and welcome) death of widespread theocracies. These philosophers understandably reacted negatively to religions’ previous stranglehold on culture and unbelievers. Hallelujah, democracy! But these same philosophers also accept that man cannot know everything. Although try as hard as disingenuous believers conversely do, atheists and exclusive followers of science cannot disprove the existence of God. They can only disprove literal and finite interpretations of Him. So have faith, I exhort you. The only thing you stand to lose is your own distrust, hopelessness, and mortal overconfidence.

13. Death is a poetic necessity to life. When leaves die, they sacrifice themselves for future ones by giving to the trunk. When a tree dies, its sacrifices itself for the next generation. When we die, we do the same. Others benefit from our death. Impermanence is a part of life. So live in the ephemeral, impermanent moment. Then prepare yourself to embrace death when it befalls you. Until then, have patience. Anticipate things. Be excellent to each other. Mortality isn’t sadness. It’s beautifully poetic, even more so with the ironic possibility of an afterlife. Hope for it.

Special thanks: This post wouldn’t have been possible without Jay Garfield’s powerful survey of intellectual history, Josh Rhine’s astute observation of humans singular focus on entertainment, nor Ted’s excellent “whoa” faceDisclosure: As a practicing Mormon, I believe the purpose of life is learning to love, mastering our body glove, finding wondrous joy, serving one another (even if we don’t always like each other), and being kind to the most vulnerable among usThis story first published to blakesnow.com on Nov. 13, 2014