The Meaning of Life

What do you think is the meaning of life?

Wow! What a question. Where to start? Okay, let’s start easy—eat, drink, and be merry! I like the “be merry” part but can’t say much positive about the “eat, drink” choices. What a dumpster life, if you thought the meaning of life was total self-pleasure.

Okay, let’s try another easy one—enjoy yourself while you’re young, because there’s no going back. Maybe so but … the fountain of youth could turn up somewhere. Who knows?

Let’s assume for the moment that you can go back. What age would you want to be? Oh, this is an easy one for me—age 32. I was in my top physical form with a game of handball a near daily indulgence. It was a “here and now” time but also a time to climb mountains and reach the summit for that wonderful view ahead. In my case, the mountain was the pursuit of the Ph.D. in political science. The view was life thereafter in the academy. I reached the summit in 1973 and for the next 30 years the view was in sight, although at times it didn’t feel so.

Life in the academy certainly had its highs and lows. On the high side, I worked along side good people who, like me, were trying to make a difference in the lives of others. On the low side, the cloistered nature of academic research often left me in the woods wondering where the path out was. Perhaps that accounts for my stops at three institutions: West Virginia University, University of South Florida, and Northern Illinois University.

Back to the question—the meaning life is to treat others the way you would like to be treated—push, shove, kick, bite!

Okay— just kidding to see if you are paying attention. To get more serious, as a youngster I thought the meaning of life was to follow your religious or spiritual beliefs. Surely, I thought, human beings were not an accident of nature. There just had to be more to life than being a physical thing with a body, brain, and drive to propagate the planet. I think this is called a Darwinian existence.

Then, as time passed and I became a social scientist committed to discovering and understanding human behavior, especially political behavior, I viewed everything through the prism of the scientific method. Disproof, not proof, was the order of the day.

With this approach I began to doubt just about everything, including the religion I was taught as a child. Perhaps even worse, I came to view religion in its many coats to be oppressive and disagreeable. The turning point came when we once attended an evangelic church in Morgantown, West Virginia. When the preacher began to harangue gays, I couldn’t take it any longer. This is not my religion, although truthfully I am not a fan of LGBT life styles.

So, putting my meandering aside, the meaning of life is to find a satisfying way to live happily with a lifelong partner and dear ones. If this sounds like “the pursuit of happiness,” I plead guilty as charged.

But along the way, the meaning of life is found in the way and manner others join in to make our humanity all that it can be.

That’s what I think; what do you think?


Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.



7 Replies to “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Many points to ponder in this fine essay.
    By the way being LGBT is no more a lifestyle to be a fan of than being straight is, it’s just who folks are. We all love whom we love.

  2. Great writing. So, there isn’t one answer, or maybe any. Life seems to have lots of unanswered questions. I enjoy your writing style!

  3. Thanks Don for your considered reflections on the meaning of life. I am afraid that for me the sound of the phrase if not the sense has become somewhat tarnished by the way it echoes Monty Python. Nevertheless l consider that in life humor or a sense of what is humorous is important for survival or even sanity.
    I look back over my own life and I review events which took upon themselves a disproportionate significance at the time and they shrink in relevance. to the whole.
    Life has a number of lessons but among them the pursuit of happiness – not solely your own , but of those others about you – should be an important goal.

  4. I wonder if the meaning of life changes by our life cycle stage. I recall an Indian philosopy which divided our lives into three — learning, working, and spiritual growth. It makes me wonder if these stages also alter our mission?

  5. Thanks. You mentioned handball
    I enjoyed playing four wall handball. It was the only 1 on 1 sport that took you in short time – with a good player – to the very limits of your stamina… and a need to go beyond.
    And when you do, you know it was all mental, all ” heart “.
    You enter a different place beyond the physical, into a place I believe few visit in a lifetime…

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