The Life That Is Truly Life

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

Is life nothing more than the sum total of our personal experiences? Is there no higher purpose to human existence than to set goals, make them, and rest in the afterglow of our successes? Those are questions that haunt the human soul.

Tom Brady had led the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. And he was only 28. During a 60 Minutes interview, Steve Kroft asked the quarterback to reflect on his accomplishments.

Brady obliged: "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I mean maybe a lot of people would say, 'Hey man, this is what it is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.' Me, I think, 'God, it's got to be more than this.' I mean this can't be what it's all cracked up to be."

"What's the answer?" Kroft pressed.

"I wish I knew... I wish I knew."

Great Disappointments

One of life's great disappointments is to set goals that we never attain. But the greater disappointment is to attain them -- whether it is winning three Super Bowls or making a financial fortune -- only to realize that they have no lasting significance. (Young athletes dallying with performance enhancement drugs, take notice.)

On the opening page of The Call, Os Guinness shares this from a troubled businessman:

I've made a lot of money . . . far more than I could ever spend, far more than my family needs. . . . To be honest, one of my motives for making so much money was simple -- to have money to hire people to do what I don't want to do. But there's one thing I've never been able to hire anyone to do for me; find my own sense of purpose and fulfillment. I'd give anything to discover that.

The entrepreneur achieved success that most people only dream about, but it was not success that satisfies. Like Tom Brady, he is emblematic of go-getters who get what they're after, and discover that what they got has left them with an unfulfilled longing, one that is universal and unique to humankind: the soul-deep desire to know who we are and find our niche, with the satisfaction that we and our labors matter in the grand scheme of things.

From Socrates to Sartre -- indeed, from the beginning of recorded history to the present -- the puzzle of life's meaning has occupied the minds of philosophers, kings, and common folk alike, including those in the Bible.

God's servant Job, in the aftermath of his crushing losses, asks plaintively, "What is man that you make so much of him?" With awe and wonder, David, the man after God's heart, echoes: "What is man that you are mindful of him?" Three times in as many chapters King Solomon, beset in existential angst, inquires, "What does man gain from all his labor?"

Such are the metaphysical questions of man's nature and purpose. Questions that press upon us, that we can't escape.

The Human Experience

In the documentary film The Human Experience, 20-year-old Jeffrey Azize and his older brother, Clifford, set out on a philosophical quest. Raised in a broken home with no one to help them wrestle with the great mysteries of life, the brothers decide to immerse themselves in the lives of the least and the last. Their goal: to discover the purpose of life by broadening their "human experience."

Their journey takes them to New York City, where they spend a week on the streets with the homeless during the coldest week of the year; to Peru, where they volunteer at a hospital for abandoned children; and, finally, to Ghana, Africa, where they live with lepers.

Among the destitute, abandoned, and diseased, the brothers are surprised to find optimism, confidence, and even joy. Individuals tell them that, despite their physical circumstances, they know that they are here for a reason. To a person, they are at a loss to say what that reason is; but that it is, they have no doubt. The unexpected hope and certainty of significance expressed by people on the margins of society leave their impact on the brothers.

At the film's end, after a poignant reunion with his estranged father, Jeffrey reflects on what the human experience has taught him. Life's meaning, while still a mystery, is at least one for which he knows there is an answer, an answer that he will continue to pursue. I'd like to recommend that he resume his quest with the book of Ecclesiastes... Continue reading here.

Originally published July 01, 2011.

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