Kelsey May | September 24th, 2017
One question I’m asked from time to time is what the meaning of life is without a belief in an afterlife. For the first two or three years after shaking my Christian beliefs, I struggled to answer this question. What was the purpose of life if it’s finite? How do our actions have any “real consequences”?
First, let’s recall that even Christians have to find their purpose. Simply believing in a greater plan doesn’t offer direction for day-to-day decisions, career paths, or relationships. Christians, like everyone, make choices.
The main thing stopping me from embracing a self-made, meaningful life a few years ago was that it didn’t seem to be significant enough. Where was the glory in living for only 70 or 80 years? If I was no longer serving the creator of the universe, what was the point in living? I struggled to feel important or value the beautiful life I have.
What I learned to do, slowly, through advice from NPR podcasts, New Yorker essays, and my all-time favorite book, The Art of Happiness by Howard C. Cutler (featuring interviews with the Dailai Lama), was to trust that life itself is worth living for. No, I don’t believe a celestial, interventionist being exists, but I do believe in the sanctity of life, the nobleness of serving others, the lasting legacy that comes from impacting the world and creating a better tomorrow. I strive to inspire, encourage, and love others. I find joy in solitude and in company. I’ve learned to feel contentment, joy, gratitude, and satisfaction in all areas of life: in conversations with co-workers and in sunsets, in the gorgeous global community of progressive poets and writers, in frozen yogurt dates with my husband, in walking dogs and birdwatching.
There are so many things to love about being alive. I’m sure you could begin listing some of your reasons now, if you took a few minutes to open your heart to gratitude. I make meaning for my life every time I choose to embrace my life and my amazing freedoms. I can wear clothes that are gorgeous, stylish, vintage, that fit my body perfectly, that make me want to dance. I can kiss my husband and lean into gratitude for his being in my life. I can write an essay about why everyone needs to work together to break down accessibility barriers in our society and communities. I can attend a concert where Damon Albarn implores the several thousand in attendance to love each other, really through-thick-and-thin love and respect and build up each other.
I’m able to do these things because I have been blessed beyond measure by the sacrifices – historic and present – of so many people. I’m blessed by the creativity of others, by the power of medicine to heal and eradicate major threats to my health. I’m blessed to live in a country that, despite our horrendous current administration, still allows me to live with rights and autonomy. I’m blessed to become whoever I want to be.
Nothing about life is perfect; I have my hard days, sometimes weeks. This article isn’t attempting to explain grief or loss or my struggle with anxiety and suicidal thoughts. But goddammit, I’m trying to be alive; I’m striving to create a more intelligent, accepting, uplifting, equitable world. My life’s purpose is grand and simultaneously so small: I live to be alive and to make my life and others’ lives more worthwhile. I live to plant trees and take photos and make art and read books. I live to teach about sustainability and to correct injustice. I live to convince others that wealth should be shared among everyone. We should all be living for each other; we should all be giving each other reasons to live, to create, to laugh and sing and celebrate. We should remember that we are each others’ meaning – family, friends, children, communities. Those who love to travel and those who wish to do so someday should remember that we need each other to carry on our rich, diverse traditions. We need each other to share knowledge and create a socially-minded world.
There is so much glory in living for yourself and for others. Positivity and love are always worthwhile. In questioning the purpose of my life, I limited my ability to see how beautiful life is already. Now, after choosing instead to embrace the finite (and unknown) amount of time I have in this world, I’ve embraced a new level of spiritual awakening and satisfaction; I feel fully alive, fully myself. I feel connected to others in a profound new way; I need others, just as others need me. In writing this article, I’m reminded of the powerful and elegant portrayal of Babe’s character in the amazing show Grace and Frankie. Babe, who has terminal cancer, accepts her impending death, not with fear or resignation, but with gratitude. She has lived a full life; she traveled, she made many friends, ate delicious food, meditated, collected beautiful works of art and clothing. She learned so much about the world and about others, and the connections she made imbued her spirit with a wealth beyond material possessions. She chose to live – and die – with a boldness, a certainty that I envy.
I’m so glad I realized why I’m here. I’m so glad I started to become conscious and present as the main character in my own story. Who’s the main character in yours?