Sunday, 1 March 2015

Some musings on the meaning of life (and death)

A week ago I asked you all the (broad and difficult) question: What do you think is the meaning/purpose of life/your life?

I really appreciate the time so many people took to write to me and talk with me in response to this. You're an interesting bunch.

Three things I do know

In all honesty, I still don't have an answer to this question that I'm happy with for myself. But there are a few things I'm fairly confident about.
  • There isn't one answer for everyone. A lot of people said that and I agree (I just thought if I asked around then hey, you never know, someone might have had an answer that sounded perfect to me which I could have copied and job done).
  • It definitely is a question worth asking, and worth trying to figure out the answer to. Even if you never get that final answer, it really, truly is an important question. (As far as I know) you only live once and as I keep saying - life is precious. Don't go through life with your eyes closed, your fingers in your ears and your brain in neutral. Think. Question. Challenge. And don't ever be afraid to change your mind or be open to the possibility you might have been wrong.
  • The answer isn't 42. That's silly and you all know it.


I brought the meaning of life question up (again) at counselling at Coping with Cancer and my counsellor turned the question on its head and asked me "What's the meaning of death?" My answer: there isn't one, it's just the end of life. I can't remember exactly how the conversation went on but it became apparent I have a problem with endings. I don't like them. And I've had a lot of them in recent times. Now I'm coming to the end of cancer treatment too, which obviously is a great thing, but it does leave me stood facing a future which consists of all sorts of new beginnings. Big, expansive, mysterious future... it's a thought that's really unsettling for a control freak like me. I keep picturing outer space for some reason.

(I've just spent ages on the hubblesite gallery* and now I'm just thinking how crazy it is that I'm sat here writing this blog sat on my sofa, in Leicester, in the UK, on planet Earth, in the solar system, in the Milky Way etc etc. We are so small.
* I've linked to the nebulae gallery. Other than black holes, nebulae are the coolest/my favourite things in the universe.)

Anyway, focus, Sarah, focus. Endings....

Also, the very recent death of my YBCN friend Claire shook me up too. It got me thinking about what I would do or say if I found out I was about to die, right now. All I can really think of is making sure everyone I love knows how wonderful I think they are. In some cases that would be an easier thing to express if I was about to die (how fucked up is that? But I guess if you're about to die you don't give a shit about much and you can just say what you want. Won't matter what anyone says or does in response, you'll soon be dead and not worrying about it.)

Get your affairs in order

I was talking to some of my friends last week who have also had breast cancer. One who has secondary breast cancer was told by her doctor that worst case scenario, she has 6 months left, and to get her affairs in order. She's 31 years old. I just can't get my head round being 31 years old and being told to get your affairs in order. What affairs would I have to get in order if I was about to die? That right there is a way to make my life feel meaningless.

For me I think getting my affairs in order means tidying my house. So I've spent the weekend doing just that, in particular the various drawers of crap. It took me about 9 months to clear out my mom's house when she died - it was filled (house, garage, outbuildings) with three generations worth of crap. There was enough space that meant nothing much ever got thrown away. I hate the thought of someone being lumbered with having to go through my stuff (not that I have anywhere near as much) and decide what's for the charity shop, what's for the bin, what might someone want to keep.

While I'm on the subject of getting my affairs in order for my own death, just in case... If I do die here's a few requests for my friends to take note of.
  • I want a non-religious funeral please and I want Lia Ices, Higher played at it, really loud. (Unless it comes to light between my death and my funeral that the Roman Catholic Church actually got it right, in which case I'll have a funeral Mass at St Dunstan's in Kings Heath, Birmingham please. I can confirm I'm a fully fledged member, baptised, First Holy Communion, First Holy Confession and Confirmation. I just remembered I wore culottes to my Confirmation - cringe! There are photos of this and the other important Catholic days in my life in the box in the spare room as evidence if you need it/ need a laugh.) Ta.
  • I don't really care what's done with my ashes but FFS scatter them somewhere, don't leave them sat in a box on top of someone's wardrobe for years because no-one can decide what to do with them. If you really don't know / can't decide then split them 50/50 between Lickey Hills and Western Park - and while you're at it could someone scatter Nico's ashes with mine? They're in the little white and blue urn in my living room. Ta.
  • Everyone who is my friend should go to the funeral and after party and get completely wasted and tell funny stories about all the times I've embarrassed myself. It should deteriorate into a really messy evening and I'm going to put together a soundtrack for it. I'm going to think of a song for everyone who I hope will be there, and leave it to you to guess which song I had in mind when I thought of you. I will also add some quality party tunes just for fun, like SL2, On a Ragga Tip (obviously) and Starship, We built this City on Rock and Roll (obviously). Anyway, this is a bloody good idea, I'm going to get carried away with this later.

Change the world

Back to meaning of life. For me, while I don't have a complete answer to the question yet I think it does include: being true to your self, experiencing as much as possible, being happy, making others happy, loving.  Also, as it happens I found something a few days ago. In September I went to a two day residential event organised by Breast Cancer Care for young women with breast cancer. At the end we were each given a card to write a message to ourselves on. The organisers then posted them out to us some time later. I'd forgotten all about it by the time mine arrived. Here's mine:


(Pretty simple for someone who can't normally manage to write less than 3,000 words at a time.)

Seems like a good thing to aim for. Now I just need to figure out how.

Some of your thoughts on the meaning of life

A selection of quotes from some of you (I'd like to include them all but this post would go on forever)...

"I don't think there is any purpose or meaning to life. Depending on one's inclination, you could either feel nihilistic about that, or liberated. Personally, I still waver between the two. That being said, there's plenty of non-theistic philosophies (humanism for example) that still assert human agency and progress is worthwhile. If you feel that art, culture, science etc. are worthwhile endeavours, then we can all give ourselves purpose by contributing to society / civilisation in some way. If our endeavours provide something that is of use or value to others then that could be our purpose - to contribute to making things better. And that doesn't mean we all have to be surgeons or astronauts or something, every role has the potential to contribute to making civilisation better by degrees... To sum up - I genuinely don't think there is any real purpose or meaning to life, but I still feel an intuitive sense of what is right and what is wrong, although it doesn't come from a higher power (I rather think it comes from our evolution as a species that flourished when we cooperated with one another, I think altruism is hard-wired into successful members of our species DNA). Striving to be excellent to one another and improve society is as close as I think we will get to purpose, in what I suspect is a truly random and meaningless universe."

"This isn't my perspective but it's one that made me think...
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself - we are creatures that should not exist by natural law... We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody's nobody... I think the honourable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal."

"For me a beautiful life is one that is filled with shared experiences. That's where we invest ourselves in others and allow those sharing the experiences see our soul. Love, laughter, excitement, loss, grief, ....all emotions shared with a good heart and a mind willing to evolve."

"To be the best version of ourselves. To do everything to the best of our ability. To pay it forward."

"I periodically think about this and can't work it out. What I think I want from life changes too frequently but the common themes are to love and be loved."

"I think that the majority of people don't really have a meaning or purpose in life. I think most people just bumble along wrapped up in their own tiny little bubble seeking self gratification in the form personal happiness - fall in love, move in with partner, buy a house, have kids, go on holidays and work 9-5 in a job they tolerate to afford all of the above. I often wonder what the point of the human race is, all we seemed to have done is destroy the planet, kill each other, cause pain and exhaust this beautiful planet of it's resources. But then I look around me and see love. This love doesn't have to be from a partner or parents, it can be from friends. I personally feel the point of my life is to create, whether that be music or art and more importantly I feel that my purpose is to make a positive change in how people see and think about things."

"I decided I think ...  that there is no one size fits all meaning of life. That could be depressing but actually means you get to chose your own meaning which is liberating. Also your meaning of life could change as you grow older or change yourself. Funnily enough I decided it is about seeing the beauty in things too. I actually think the meaning of life is probably a lot of small things. ... Maybe the meaning of life is about creating happy memories for yourself. But it does not have to be big grand memories. I love watching the birds in the holly tree in the morning out of my bedroom window. There is a book about happiness which I think says that happiness is created out of experiences and not material things. I think that is probably true."

"I suppose I've always felt that the only person I need to reckon with when I die is me, and as long as I do my best to make the right choices in the meantime, there's no point giving myself a much harder time than that. When I said that the meaning for me is living, loving and learning, it doesn't mean that automatically equates happiness, it doesn't. Love goes unrequited, I learn after making the most hideous of mistakes, and I don't live as well as I ought, in many ways. But life is about running the gauntlet, taking the rough with the smooth, knowing that for the most terrible, loneliest lows, there will one day be a high to equate them. Taking chances, taking opportunities, fucking up, and sometimes getting it right. I want to at least feel like I've tried to make the most of what I have, and never, ever take anything for granted."

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