Day 52: What is the meaning of life?

“Today solve that eternal problem by looking it up in the dictionary.”

Not just any dictionary will do, of course – there is only one dictionary that can be called “The Dictionary,” and that’s the OED. (Sorry, Dr. Johnson.)

The entry for “life” in the OED runs to five pages (with another three pages of compounds): big pages, with three columns and very small type. I’m not going to reproduce the entire entry, but here are some highlights:

I. The condition or attribute of living or being alive; animate existence. Opposed to death or inanimate existence.
1. a. The condition, quality, or fact of being a living person or animal; human or animal existence.
1. d. The condition that distinguishes animals, plants, and other organisms from inorganic or inanimate matter, characterized by continuous metabolic activity and the capacity for functions such as growth, development, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimulation; (also) the activities and phenomena by which this is manifested.

That’s quite helpful, I think. Life is being alive. Mystery solved. What’s next?

Of course, if it were that easy, a lot of folks would be out of a job: philosophers, religious teachers, novelists, poets, painters, gardeners, advertising executives, fashion designers, bartenders. If the meaning of life is just “continuous metabolic activity,” then one of the Big Questions is off the table for people whose “job” it is to “explore” or “manipulate” the “human condition.”

“What is the meaning of life?” is not a question that can be – or ought to be – answered. Or, at least, not answered in a “the meaning of life is X” sort of way. There are many answers, but they’re all partial, local, tentative, provisional. The value of the question is in the asking, in the searching and exploration and reflection that come before the answering. The answer itself is useful, I guess, but only as the starting place for more asking.

The body is alive because it exhibits “continuous metabolic activity” – the mind is alive because it never stops asking the big questions.


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