What is the meaning of life? It sounds like a trite question, but it’s one we all ask: what’s it all for? What is really important? Why are we here?
Society offers an answer: the purpose of life is to get what you want for yourself by convincing others that you’re important and useful. Hence we are measured by what we do for others: if we make them laugh, or feel good, or inform them in ways they are willing to accept, or provide some useful function for them, then we are worthwhile. Sometimes this utilitarian truth is hidden under a veneer of courtesy: please and thank-you create an illusion of things freely offered and gratefully accepted, but it is an exchange all the same. The end result is that the value of a person is measured by their usefulness.
This leads to problems. Very young children cannot do much yet: they are valued based on what they will do in the future. Children who are ill or disabled, or born to challenged parents who might be less likely to raise them well, are often valued less. Old people are still considered valuable when they are self-sufficient and still able to enjoy the pleasures of life, but as soon as this is no longer the case, their value plummets. To be old, sick and dependent on others has become something worthy even of death, as euthanasia becomes increasingly accepted. People find themselves valued not for who they are, but for what they do. Only to the extent that one does something that people like or want, or show promise of doing such things, one is valued. This “conditional love” turns us into slaves, where the fear of losing our value makes us work compulsively, to be considered worthy.
I do not think society’s answer is right. It treats people like things. But people are not things. God loved people so much that he sent Jesus, to give us life. Jesus teaches that human beings are meant to love and be loved. Jesus did more than just teach this, he showed it. He was crushed by his enemies, who wanted to suppress his message. But they could not stop him from loving. He loved them, praying for them even as they killed him. But they could not keep him dead. Jesus rose, and called us to follow him, to love one another as he has loved us.
Love is not the same thing as being useful. Even the simplest and weakest person is capable of loving. Even a tiny child in utero, or a person who is completely catatonic, are capable of being loved. To love is to put the other before oneself, to live for their good rather than our own. To love is to treat a person as someone who is valued for who they are, not what they do. Simon Sinek, management theorist and author, studied leadership in the military. As he describes in a very popular TED talk, the best leaders were those who loved those who were under their command, who sacrificed themselves for the good of their soldiers. They risked their own lives to save wounded soldiers, even those who had become a liability to the mission rather than an asset. Clearly it is not usefulness, but love, that is the motivator here.
Utilitarians would argue that love is good only because it is useful: leaders act in loving ways because love works in getting the best work out of people. I think this is upside-down. The point of love is not to get more usefulness out of people, the point of usefulness is to make more room for people to love.
What do I mean? Usefulness is a gift, a valuable one. But it is not valuable in itself alone. What is the point of doing anything if not for love? Usefulness is a gift that we give to each other in order to build together lives that are more capable of love. Parents know this instinctively. We earn money to raise our families, we don’t raise our families in order to earn money.
So what does this mean about the meaning of life? The meaning of life is to love and be loved. Yes, when we are capable of being useful, let us be useful. When we are not, that’s O.K. too: we are not of less value because of that. A person who is not useful is still capable of being loved. It is in this love that our lives find meaning. So let us put our priorities straight. Usefulness is all well and good, but the meaning of life is love.