I’ve been thinking about life a lot lately. I look at my own life and wonder if it has much meaning. It has meaning to me, of course. But does it have meaning beyond me? Will my brief existence on Earth have any meaningful short-term or long-term impact? Is it important that it does?
Life is such a strange thing.
There are points in every one of our lives where it just simply takes our breath away. These are different for each of us. They could be in the ecstasy of passing a difficult exam at school, or in the miraculous moments of giving birth to a child, or while standing on a mountain top, or while sitting with a dear friend, drinking tea on a long cold night, and laughing from the bottom of your hearts while remembering days gone by.
There are other points in every one of our lives when we are enveloped by a darkness we may think will never end: the death of a loved one, being unemployed, losing everything in a natural disaster, or, for some, simply failing an important exam at school.
And there are all the ups and downs in between: buying a pair of brand new shoes, suffering from an illness, making new friends, falling out with old friends, getting married, getting divorced, going on holiday, not being able to go on holiday…
I look at other people’s lives and I sometimes can’t make sense of how fortunate I have been throughout my life compared to so many others. I have always had a roof over my head, food in my mouth, clothes to keep me warm, and a loving family. I had a proper childhood climbing trees, playing with wood blocks, reading Agatha Christie books under the covers at night, and having very little to worry about beyond keeping my grades high so my father wouldn’t get upset with me.
I have never had to walk 14 miles to get dirty water from a stream for my family. I have never lived through a natural disaster and lost everything.
I look at other people’s lives, even those close to me, and I realize anything I may have suffered is nothing. How did my paternal grandmother ever survive giving birth to nine children, losing four of those while they were babies, and losing another two as adults? Another loved one’s father left them when they were only children and they had no idea where he went off to or why. How does one survive that? Yet another was disowned by his country for many years, unable to return. A mother’s children were taken away from her and she spent years trying to find them. Others have suffered through depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse.
These stories have happened to people very close to me. I stop and think and I realize that every single person has a story. Every single person has been through immense hardship.
We have a horrible tendency as human beings sometimes to only see in people that which we envy most.
We see the successful businessman and envy that success. We fail to see the hunger that same person lived through as a child. That same hunger spurred him on as an adult to provide a better life for his own children. We fail to see the huge failures and losses that successful businessman faced that, in the end, made him stronger and more resilient, making his future success a possibility.
We see the young girl whose papa gives her everything: the holidays, the pretty clothes, the big house. We fail to see the personal torments she suffers or the breast cancer that she has just survived.
We see the mother of three who has spent her life caring for her children, cooking, cleaning, and washing. We envy the “easy” routine life she has had and we fail to see everything she sacrificed, all the ambitions and all her own needs, in order to live not a life of her own, but a life for her children.
Life is so strange.
There are times when we look at others and we think that we are so much better than them. We know so much more. We have experienced so much more. We have learned so much more.
There are times when we look at others – sometimes the same people we looked at before – and we think our lives are so much worse, we are suffering more than anyone else, and we’ve been dealt the worst hand.
I have been looking at life a lot lately. A lesson I learned a long time ago is that everyone has a story. Everyone has something to teach me. The important thing is that I keep my eyes, my ears, my heart and my mind open to learn from people.
I have learned that there is so much more that I can learn from a poorly educated farmer in rural Egypt than I could teach him. I have learned that there is so much more that I can learn from a 70-year-old housewife in rural Peru than I can teach her. I have learned that there is so much more that I can learn from a ten-year-old living almost anywhere in the world than I can teach him.
Is life, perhaps, about the personal journey? Is that where the meaning truly lies?
I sometimes try to look back at the lives of people who have left us. Their lives may have been meaningful to a few people beyond them. They may have left some sort of an impact. But how many people live on this Earth and leave an impact that continues for generations? Is it necessary that we have this as a goal? Is it all right for us to live a “forgettable” life, as long as we live a “memorable” journey of our own?
Everyone’s journey is memorable if one considers memorable to mean worthwhile. Our journeys teach us even when we try very hard not to learn the lessons. Is there a point when one thinks, “I have learned many lessons. I have grown as a human being. I have been on my journey. It is all right to die.”? But then what if we die when we are not at that stage? Does that mean we did not lead a fulfilled life? Does anyone ever reach a stage where they feel they have lived a fulfilled life? If some do and some do not, is that fair? Or is life about the struggle? For we all do struggle. Our struggles are very different sometimes. But it is always, undoubtedly, a struggle.
This reminds me of a verse in the Holy Qur’an: “O thou man! Verily thou art ever toiling on towards thy Lord- painfully toiling,- but thou shalt meet Him.” (84:6)
The translations poorly convey the meaning of the Arabic verse. The Arabic verse communicates a meaning of constant struggle until one meets His God.
Perhaps that is what life is all about: the struggle, the constant toiling, until the time comes to meet God with whatever lessons we have learned.
Perhaps it is not an impact I need to be concerned with or a life that is meaningful beyond however many years I am on this Earth. Perhaps my single most concern should lie with accepting the struggle and making peace with it.
Life is so strange. What was the meaning of my father’s life? What was the meaning of my grandmother’s life? What was the meaning of my aunt’s life who died giving birth to her fourth child, who also did not survive? What will be the meaning of my life once I am gone? Is it important that we understand the meaning of other people’s lives? Or is life simply about our own personal journey?
So many questions.