What Gives Life Meaning?
As an atheist, Jennifer Fulwiler felt like she was living a lie: “I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless,” she tell us, “and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain.” Her outlook was rather dismal: “if everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death.” For her, life couldn’t possibly have meaning because life was merely material and temporal. Nothing special.
At the risk of throwing unholy water on Jennifer Fulwiler’s fervent conversion story, I must object to this idea that life can be meaningful only if it has spiritual and eternal significance. If life has such everlasting significance, so much the better, but we needn’t get so far as spirits, gods, and the heavens to find meaning in the human condition. We can, for example, trace the emergence of meaningfulness back to the human capacity for consciousness and narration. Even if glory, hope, love, heroism, and joy are reducible to reacting chemicals and firing neurons, they become meaningful in the context of our consciousness of them and the stories we tell, retell, and remember. To quote Richard Kearney: “From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? Are we animal, human or divine? Strangers, gods or monsters?”
We discover what it means to be ourselves in this grand endeavor of storytelling, of narrating who and what we are and from where we came. Some of these stories we remember; others we forget. Some we consider sacred; others profane. Some rise to the heights of culture; others are lost in the sands of time. Regardless of these contingencies, they are all meaningful. The story no one remembers still had meaning when it was told and heard and remembered. Similarly, if the human story ultimately comes to nothing, the story will still have been meaningful for those who lived and shared it.
What gives life meaning? At the very least, we do.