The meaning of life (yes, seriously)
What’s the meaning of life? Relationships. Next question…What? You were expecting a more complicated answer? Nah. It would, I agree, be nicer if the answer were more spiritual or required some manner of mystery to be revealed or complex initiation to be performed for the answer to be fully understood. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. What is tricky is why, if relationships are so important, we take them for granted so often. But even that’s no great surprise: quite a lot of life is taken up with the time-consuming business of living.
This epiphany came while looking through photographs of a holiday in Norway at age 15. Each new photograph of a fjord was more beautiful and more dull than the last. During that trip I saw the sun set above the horizon, and drove through the whole of Finland seeing nothing but forest. All very nice. But what I remember most from that trip was my friends and I going into a sex shop in Stockholm; getting locked in the toilet at the northern most tip of mainland Norway (thereby missing part of the sunset); and failing to impress some Swedish girls as we went for a swim in the Baltic, above the arctic circle, and having to run back to shore when the cold water reached our groins. It’s the people you are with and the moments you share – your relationships – that are important.
I recall a management trainee telling me they had backpacked solo around half of Asia during a gap year before starting work. When I asked whether it had been lonely she said she had made friends at youth hostels along the way. I wasn’t convinced. I like to see the world, but places are boring and uninteresting next to people.
I’ve visited the Grand Canyon. It is awe-inspiring. But what my wife and I recall more clearly is the awkward silence in the helicopter after the pilot said ‘Ask me any question you like about the Grand Canyon.’ Our minds went blank. Then one heroic chap stepped into the breach and asked a whole lot of questions about the helicopter! The other thing we remember was the German couple that had got married earlier that morning. Almost everything I remember about that trip concerns the people I travelled with that day. To remind you, this was the Grand Canyon. I’m willing to bet that even standing on the moon and watching the Earth rise gets a bit dull after a while.
If you really want to understand the meaning of life spend time in a hospice. Forget adrenalin rushes, sporting highs, and great events. If you want to experience life in its most concentrated, most intense, it’s all there. People are at their very best – and I mean their very best – when things are the worst. If anyone despairs of the me-me, rush and discourtesy of some aspects of modern life, don’t. These same people, in more trying circumstances, will be warm, uplifting and inspiring. All of us.
Like our health, we take our relationships for granted. Of course we do. How could it be otherwise? We live our lives as if we are going to live forever, always looking forward, taking everything for granted. Thank goodness we do. The alternative isn’t very appealing.