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The meaning of life (as I see it… humbly)

In the movie City Slickers, three New Yorkers approaching middle age head out to a dude ranch out west to find themselves. Jack Palance, in a great role, plays the intimidating cowboy who sees right through them. They’re just 39 year olds struggling with their mid-life crises, looking for the meaning to life. The cowboy suggests to them that the meaning of life is one thing, as he points up his index finger, but each person has to figure out what that one thing is for themselves.

There is no doubt that we each have our own path to find. As the saying goes, we all have our own crosses to bear. We always look at others thinking that the grass is greener on their side, not realizing that they are looking at us in the same way. Most of us would not want to exchange our burden with someone else’s. The truth is that our burden is designed for each of us individually, and we are given the tools, in the form or our talents and our opportunties, to bear our burden.

But simply bearing the burden doesn’t give meaning to it. You may say you have no choice, but in fact, you do. You can always check out, and I’m not just talking about suicide. Many people avoid their burdens through alcohol, drugs, or even just simple laziness and irresponsibility. No, give yourself credit, you actually willingly bear your burden.

But so much of the discussion about the meaning of life seems to focus on what makes life worth living despite the burdens we bear. That’s what the cowboy in City Slickers was talking about. For him, despite the difficulties he faced, the joy of being in the great outdoors made it all worthwhile. For the Billy Crystal character, he realized on his trip that his family made his challenges bearable.

That’s real feel good moviemaking, and it jives with a lot of our culture. We desperately seek to avoid pain and difficulty, looking for ways to take the easy way rather than accepting the challenges put before us. But that approach actually misses the point.

What gives life meaning is actually the burden itself. Unfortunately, suffering, fear and difficulty are part of the human condition. That’s why author M. Scott Peck started his book The Road Less Traveled with the words “Life is difficult.” It’s hard to argue with that. So rather than looking for escapes and ways to avoid our responsibility in this life, we need to accept that these challenges are our fate and we need to embrace them as the opportunities that they are.

Right about now, I’m sure you’re getting ready to put down this book. In this book, we’re not going to look for easy answers. Instead, we’re going to look for truth.

So why would we embrace the challenges that sometimes make our lives so unpleasant? Simply saying that our difficulties are the purpose of our life, or our fate, does not give meaning to them. We need to take another step. To put it bluntly, you need to ask yourself “what’s in it for me?”

It may seem odd to ask you to think this way in the wake of my earlier criticism of selfishness. But let’s face it. For life to have meaning, for the suffering to matter, it has to matter to someone for some reason. If not you, then at least somebody.

And in fact, I do believe you do get something out of your difficulties and suffering. You probably already know what it is. We have a saying that when something was unpleasant or difficult, we call it a “learning experience.” I would submit to you, then, that if the purpose of our life is the challenges we fact, the meaning to those difficulties is the opportunity they give us to learn. The meaning of life, then, is for us to have an opportunity to learn.

We may say that cats are curious, but it is in fact humans who are the most curious species. We are insatiable learners. When we are not learning, we get bored quickly. Children play to learn. Adults live life to learn. Indeed, it is often stated that children play to prepare themselves for adulthood. But playing with dolls doesn’t prepare a parent, and playing with erector sets doesn’t make one an engineer. Instead, the love of learning and accomplishing difficult challenges is what we get from childhood play. That is in fact the one characteristic all humans have in common.

You may say that you wish there was an easier way to learn your lessons than having to bear your burden. I certainly wish there were. But we all know that experience is the best teacher. During my career, as I stated earlier, I have had some fantastic successes and some spectacular failures. While the successes felt better, I can state for a fact that I learned more, usually much more, from my failures. And the lessons I learned from those failures form the basis for future successes.

School is no substitute. This is not to diminish the value of education, but school teaches us by creating a safe environment in which we can experience some of life. That’s essentially what school is. But the experience you are introduced to in school is the experience of others — your teachers and the authors of your textbooks. In truth, the only way to learn from life is to experience it yourself.

So the goal should be to bear your burdens with gratitude. These burdens are yours alone, and they are specifically designed for you. In fact, they are even chosen by you. This is not to say that you will necessarily enjoy all your challenges and difficulties, or even look forward to them. But you can appreciate them as opportunities to learn your lessons, and in this way, you give the challenges themselves meaning.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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