The Meaning of Life: Can we find it in great literature?

by cheri block sabraw

Last year, I visited the marvelous San Francisco Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.  Along with a shockingly gorgeous white crocodile and a room full of butterflies, was a human skull time line, illustrating the changes in the evolutionary development of the human brain. I stopped at one of the  small skulls of early man and wondered what types of concerns this person might have had about his life. Survival, I thought and moved on.

In modern culture,  we don’t usually worry  about being attacked and eaten by wolves. The wild animals that gnaw on our bones at night while we sleep are usually those same ones that haunt those of us who crave meaning.  Is there meaning to our lives? And if so, what is it?

I’ve written before about finding the meaning of life in Nature, but since I have been enrolled in Scotty McLennan’s course at Stanford this quarter, The Meaning of Life: Spiritual and Moral Inquiry Through Literature , I am now revisiting much of the literature I have taught through the years, searching for meaning beyond the obvious.

What is the meaning of life?

First, it is hard to find meaning if you talk too much and listen too little.

Meaning cannot be found in distraction (your iPhone, stupid).

Meaning has nothing to do with mirrors, but reflection may get you there.

Meaning has little to do with you, but others may help you find it.

Literature introduces us to characters like you and me, characters such as Hester Prynne, Willy Loman, and even the giant caterpillar, Gregor Samsa. What can we learn from them about the meaning of life?

I’ll be writing about some of these characters over the next several months and look forward to your thoughts about the meaning of life.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, On fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to The Meaning of Life: Can we find it in great literature?

  1. dafna says:

    nice, will these posts be in the style of an essay?

  2. I look forward to the insights and discussion!

  3. Philippe says:

    Can one really find the meaning of life through reading great literature, or any literature? (what is deemed “great” is subjective, after all).

    Literature can, of course, tell us about what’s going on inside of ourselves – and so *acts as therapy* – and it can tell us about what might be going on inside of those we know; and about what’s wrong with the society we live in, and about the societies of yore, and so on.

    Are these the literary paths to finding the meaning of life?

    I’ll read with interest what you say about all this in your future postings.

    • Cheri says:

      Thanks for the link to the Guardian article. I’ve printed it.

      You are right about the subjectivity of the word “Great” but I have to differentiate (I’ve had this argument with my smartie-pants high school students for years and years and years…) between books like “Rescue Copter” and ” From Here to Eternity.” 😀

      I’m more interested in certain characters and what their lives might show us about deep meaning, as opposed to surface meaning. We are mired in surface most of our lives, don’t you think?

  4. Cyberquill says:

    Je suis donc je mange.

  5. I doubt literature can reveal the nature of life. Literature tells more about the author than about anything else.
    The meaning of life is to be found within each one of us and may differ from one individual to the other. I don’t think there is a universal meaning of life.

    • Cheri says:

      Can we say that there are some elements to a universal meaning of life?

      • I fail to see what those elements could be. Life means so many different things to so many people. What is life for a Chinese coolie or for Donald Trump? What is life for a Jesuit or for a Buddhist monk? The only common elements that I can imagine is that we all breath and have a destiny to fulfill the best we know how and can considering our infinitely varied circumstances.
        We may share some values, in the absolute, but we live them in a host of different and, at times, opposite ways such as democracy, how many democracy types are there? Even China considers itself a democracy.
        All very confusing, I dare say.

  6. Cheri, wonderful thoughts to ponder. One of my favorite characters is literature is Hester Prynne. I identify with how it must have felt to have had the whole village project their dark sides onto her. No one individual owning his or her own part in the shady corners of their own hearts.

    I also adored her little girl who was at once wild, magical and named Pearl and I suspect the symbolic child of great price.

    • Cheri says:

      You are one step ahead of me. I wish I had had some Jungian knowledge when I taught that novel because projection is a key factor in it.
      I’m interested in Hester’s personal stand. In her reaction to public shame.
      In her parenting skills.
      In what went on in the natural world as opposed to the Puritan world of law and punishment.
      She is a marvelous character to think about.

      Pearl is a whole nuther story.

  7. “… Meaning has nothing to do with mirrors, but reflection may get you there….”

    Great line.

    • Cheri says:

      Why thankee.
      As I have aged, I’ve noticed that I have spent much more time in front of the mirror, trying to look younger. So, as the wrinkles wrinkle, my eyes must twinkle. The twinkle is found in reflection.

  8. Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen says:

    I try to spend as little time as possible in front of my mirror these days! However as to the original question, since we are all individual, I’m sure we will each have a unique answer. It goes along with the Jesuit question as to “why are we here?” I look forward to your other posts on this subject.

    • Cheri says:

      Tell us more about the Jesuit question. I have little regard for them based on my limited studies of Copernicus and Galileo, as well as their current shame, the molestation of many boys.

  9. Richard says:

    What does “meaning of life” mean, please. Or is that the same question?

    • Cheri says:

      Would you be so kind as to weigh in here?

      I reject the notion that there are many “meanings of life.” Sure, there are many approaches to life, many activities in life, many religious and philosophic beliefs in life, but are they all meaningful?

      Some would argue that if a life is meaningful to the individual, then it is well, meaningful. That many be true in a pedestrian sense, but what about the larger experience?

      I believe it was Plato, in referring to the death of Socrates, who used the term the Eternal Verities, those Truths about human existence that are bigger than the whole of us put together. These Truths, rather than say, the truths found in a court of law, or the truths found in a bowling manual, or the truths found in a comedy club while sipping a white Russian, or the truths found while reading “Rescue Copter,” are what lead us to the Meaning of Life.

      The first step in finding the meaning of life is to listen rather than talk.

    • Richard says:

      In truth, the meaning of life, let alone the meaning of life through literature, is not a question I often ask myself.

      I do wonder at the purpose of it all, particularly at times of failure. It is worth remembering that half of all legal cases fought to the bitter end are failures. It is as well, then, that anyone wishing to become a lawyer should learn to treat success and failure in pursuit of justice as the impostors they are.

      You will at once rebuke me for not addressing the matter in hand, and you would be right.

      At the core is a paradox. Even without a definition of “Life” or “Meaning”, any answer poses the same question again. It corresponds to my feeling that if I happened upon a meaning, all meaning would dissolve.

      That should not deter me. I delight in believing I approach any answer to anything, and double delight in discovering I am nowhere near one. Literature, among other experiences, does this to me.

      I confess I do not even know what life is. Clinical definitions approach from the other end, seeking to define death. It is well known that this important practical question is fraught with difficulty. Death is not relevant to my here and now and life is not merely the negative of death.

      I tackle the enigma by treating life as a synonym for awareness. Awareness is the source of all I know, yet it is subject to a like paradox: any attempt to define it requires a further definition. I cannot discern its discrete properties. I simply know it applies to me and has a singular character. I cannot tell if it applies to anyone else. I do not know, and cannot know, if it associated with any material or physical experience or attribute.

      This clear but baffling uncertainty marks out my existence and is the driving force in all I do, success or no success.

      I proffer these meagre thoughts as defining my humanity and providing my thrill and ceaseless wonder in being.

      • Cheri says:

        Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts on this big question.

        It corresponds to my feeling that if I happened upon a meaning, all meaning would dissolve.

        I’m not sure I understand this sentence. Perhaps you can clarify for us.

        Perhaps I am too simple. Life means being alive, here, on earth. Death means leaving this experience, physically. What is the meaning of being here?

        • Richard says:

          Sorry to be so obscure, Cheri. My comment is necessarily personal and introspective; hence my use of the first person singular.

          Allow me to retreat from metaphor to analogy. Classical physics produced two beautifully simple equations, Newton’s universal description of the force of gravity and Einstein’s relation of energy to mass and the velocity of light. The simplicity creates an illusion of final truth. Compare this to the uncertainties and challenge to the imagination of quantum physics and the supposed meaning of classical physics dissolves. Stephen Hawking himself has abandoned his search for the “Theory of Everything”. I have drawn far too grandiose a parallel but I hope I make myself clearer.

          You write about your life and death. You may be right, but what is your source of information about the experience of death? If you are using “Meaning” in a deterministic sense, the fact of being does not extend to cause and effect, The evidence of any connection of being to conception, birth and death is entirely circumstantial.. Enquiry into awareness is hide-bound because it assumes the existence of awareness to enable enquiry in the first place – it can only ever be tautologous.

          • Cheri says:

            Thank you Richard. We appreciate the additional thoughts. I think I understand what you are saying although I had to read it three times. 😀
            All I am wondering about is the simple: What is a meaningful life? Is it what we identify it to be or are there some universal qualities?
            I refute any idea that we cannot come to some commonality about what is and is not particularly meaningful in how we spend our lives.
            Too simple?

            • Richard says:

              This discussion presents problems because it is too free-ranging. If we can settle upon an axiom, all manner of potential is opened up.

              An axiom is supposed to be self-evident but that is a cloak. for the most intractable of problems.

              Let us then choose our axiom. If we were to say, upon your lead, that the objective and the subjective are universal qualities then language, art, music, science, religion, morality and all things that involve an outside world are candidates for the meaning of life.

            • Richard says:

              Unless we include 42, of course.

  10. Philippe says:

    The answer to what is the Meaning of Life is so absurdly simple and so obvious that we refuse to see it, and so can’t.

    The Meaning of Life is, of course, whatever you think it is, since whatever you think is your reality.

    • Cheri says:

      Well Philippe,
      Are you saying that whatever is one’s reality, that is the meaning of life for that person.
      I’d like to explore with you whether you might consider that there are individual “meanings of life, whatever they may be…the Kardashians, Socrates, etc” and the notion that there might be a much higher calling.

      What do you say about that idea?

  11. Philippe says:

    @Cheri – “………..Are you saying that whatever is one’s reality, that is the meaning of life for that person…….”

    I say that one’s reality is what one thinks it is, or is what one believes it is. For instance, that I exist may merely be a function of my belief, or of someone else’s belief. Or, the life I’ve lived, and the circumstances of my life now, may be a dream I’m having, or are the content of someone else’s dream.

    As it may be for me, so it may be for you too!!

    We all live in dream worlds, do we not?

    • Cheri says:

      Can we live a meaningful dream? And if so, what is it? If the answer is “a meaningful dream is what our reality is, then I guess everyone is living a meaningful dream.

  12. dafna says:

    Oh dear, dear , dear,

    I thought the essay or thesis would be something like, “What is a life well lived?”

    Any attempt to define “Life” is inherently self-referential or tautologous; start out thinking you don’t exist and see how far that gets you. Existentialism bores me. I don’t see the value in living my life believing that I’m a figment of imagination.

    As an artist the first question we ask ourselves “Is the quality of art relative or is some art better than other?” We intuit that some is better than other. Yes, Cheri, some books ARE better than others and some actions do make some lives better spent than others. In that respect Paul’s comment does not entirely contradict. We share some values in the absolute – poking someone in the eye is not a good thing, nor is eating them even if they are Reese’s flavored.

    Look to Thoreau and Emerson, even though Hawthorne mocked them, they sought to find a meaning to life!

    “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau

    I leave the Emerson to Jenny 🙂

  13. Cheri says:

    As the Judge would say, “Fair Comment, dafna!”

    I agree with your observations. Whether or not we ask if a life was well-lived or meaningful, those questions are serious ones. We can take the individual approach and say that if “I believe it is meaningful, then it is.” Sure. In my view, however, there are some Universals. That’s what I am interested in, here in this thread. Why do certain pieces of literature live on? It may be in the Universals.

    You can also leave Emerson to me (although I would love Jenny’s take…). I spent 40 years teaching American transcendentalism. Your Thoreau quotation is spot-on!! And yes, Hawthorne (and Melville) mocked that little Concord clique.

    Thank you for your insight here!

  14. dafna says:

    In which case Cheri, your readers agree with your premise more than the comments would suggest… we all get a little off-point when we funnel things through our world views.

    Mine happens to co-incide with yours a little more on this topic 🙂

  15. Richard says:

    All right. I’ll take the plunge. I’ll embarrass you. 🙂 This is entirely personal and i do not seek to persuade anyone. I realise this has any number of psychological, neurological and other possible explanations. It’s all part of the wonderful uncertainty.

    I believe in God. I would go further. I am constantly aware of an external, asexual, constant, unchanging, active, non-judgmental, loving, lonely presence that I do not understand.

    One snag. All success has to be attributed to this presence and all failure to me.

    And to answer you specific question: can this be found in great literature? Well, yes.

  16. Cheri says:

    Lovely description of your awareness, Richard, especially your observation that this presence is loving and lonely. I’ll meditate on that description this week.

    We part ways by the snag.

  17. Philippe says:

    @Dafna – “……..I don’t see the value in living my life believing that I’m a figment of imagination……..”

    If you see no value in believing you’re a figment of imagination, then you should of course believe in something different, which I assume you do. You are, after all, free to believe whatever you want about yourself, and about everything not yourself. Your beliefs are your reality, just as my beliefs are my reality.

    I, for instance, think it exciting, and, like, cool, that I might be merely the figment of someone’s imagination; or that my life is a dream I’m having, and that the moment I breathe my last will the moment I begin dreaming another dream. But I’m still free to create my own meaning in whatever I do, even though my life may only be a dream, or that I may be merely the figment of someone’s imagination.

    For what it’s worth, I believe that our points of view, or our philosophies of life, are the product of our individual circumstances, and our individual histories. Therefore everything we believe about anything, which usually manifests as our opinions about anything, say more about us than about what we believe in or opine about.

    • dafna says:

      True enough Philippe,
      a person could glean from my opinion that i’m an extrovert who enjoys the company of others, and because i choose to believe others are real it gives their actions and opinions weight.

      whatever else my opinion says about me is hidden from myself 😉

      • Philippe says:

        Since I am very much an introvert, and so don’t generally enjoy the company of others (a little of anyone goes a long way), and that culturally and geographically I’m uprooted, and have always otherwise felt myself a stranger in the world – indeed a stranger in a strange land – and that anxiety is my dominant mode of feeling, it would follow that reality for me is at best provisional. Hence the nature of my previous comments.

        The films of Woody Allen do so speak to me.

  18. Cheri says:

    The films of Woody Allen (his earlier films, in particular) speak to me too.
    Thanks for your authenticity, Philippe. I admire that quality (as you know).

  19. Joyce says:

    Your blog post really got me thinking about the importance of just pausing for a moment, rather, stopping for more than a moment. I feel like life is always on the go and even if Nature or God wanted me to reflect about the meaning of life, I would not hear it because I am constantly distracted. This post reminds me to take time and listen. I think surrounding myself with people who have life experience can also help me to figure out what is the meaning of life. It is through their stories that I begin to think about what it is that I really want from this life. You have given me much to ponder about.

    • Cheri says:

      Great to hear from you Joyce. I’d agree with your observation about surrounding yourself with people who can share their life experiencest will help you define your own life experience. I didn’t always agree with Joe or with my current professor, but they have taught me something because I took the time to listen (and maybe change my mind).I am serious when I say that distractions and complexity seem to work against one’s listening, pondering, and focusing.

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