We are living in a time where information runs downstream at a rapid pace. We could find out what’s happening across the country and even across the world within hours or even minutes of it happening. Yet in this era of information where we can be informed and educated more than any other generation, have we changed? Have we stopped repeating the sins of our ancestors? Have we come closer to ending world hunger? Terminating human trafficking? Protecting the rights of children? Ending any form of genocide? Have we stopped hating our brother? The answer to those questions is…not really. So, what does this thing called life mean? What are we doing here anyway? Are we all just hamsters on this karmic wheel that keeps spinning in the same direction?
I believe most people have asked the question, “What does this all mean?”. At least once in a lifetime, many of us question our purpose, the meaning of our suffering, or what value we have in a more global sense. We all have existential dilemmas, and sometimes they grow into existential crises. In fact, it is so common that there is a form of psychotherapy dedicated to helping people process through their crisis by exploring their own human experience in-depth. Believe it or not, we even see this in the Bible. For many, it is easy to view the Bible as a mystical piece of literature, an out of date text or simply not relatable. But it is actually a book describing the relationship between God and His people. God and us. So it’s not surprising that the book of Ecclesiastes is actually an example of this humanistic experience and examination of the meaning of life from the perspective of the author. The first chapter is even entitled “Everything is Meaningless”.
The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
Look, we are still struggling with many of the same issues that generations did before us. We are most definitely struggling with new issues the more and more technology develops. At the core though, the human condition remains the same. Life is hard. Life isn’t fair. Life is redundant. And, as we know, life keeps going.
In my line of work, I have seen a lot of hardship. I have worked in a children’s hospital, private practice, and in a setting with compromised young children. I have seen mothers lose their children over a long period of time, and I’ve seen them lose their children suddenly. I have sat with parents as a medical team is unplugging their child, and goodbyes are being painfully whispered. I have worked with children who were homeless, whose parents were incarcerated and who were kicked out of their preschool because of “poor behavior.” I have worked with teenagers who are hurting, can’t make sense of the world, and want to desperately understand themselves. Sometimes those teenagers contemplate ending it all because it “all feels so meaningless.” I have seen a lot of trauma, pain, and suffering, and I have experienced my own in the midst of it. Here’s the thing – I don’t know what it all means. I know what it means to me though. I know that my heart breaks with every patient, client, and case that I have worked on. And I know that the moment my heart stops breaking is the moment I have stopped caring, stopped loving, and even stopped fully living. Galatians 6:9 says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” James writes, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (4:17).”
I know that every day can feel like the same old same old same old same old. I feel like I make less of a difference way more times than I feel like I’ve actually made a difference. I don’t know what I mean to others all the time, I don’t know how to weigh my value, and I don’t know if I’d be able to tell you what purpose I have on this planet. I do know what life means to me. I know what I value and what I feel is purposeful. And I believe that those things are what I am supposed to pursue. I may be doing the same thing as someone else because, honestly, there’s “nothing new under the sun”. But what if I’m doing good and some other person is doing the same kind of good and then 10 other people are doing it too? Doesn’t that amount to something bigger? We are called to be active, radical ambassadors of love while we are residents here on this planet. And the truth is, we may not know our meaning while we are here. But I believe that God cares. God cares what I do, and God cares about those I influence, those I help, and those I love. And I believe what I do can reflect God’s heart if I am doing the good works that I know I am supposed to do with the gifts and abilities I am given.
So maybe the question you can ask when you are in the midst of an existential struggle or crisis is not “What does it all mean?”. Maybe reframe the question as, “What does it all mean to me?”. Maybe we can see each moment as an opportunity to get closer to our purpose, increase our value, and see bits of meaning here and there. We may never have the answer to the meaning of life at the end of the day or at the end of our lives. But I know that we are meant to be here now at this time with the people that surround us and with the lives we are given. In a sense, we are ordained to be living this life, and that right there means something.
Tori Conicello-Emery is a long-time member of Hope Community Church. She loves to engage in community, spiritual discussions, faith practices and is a dedicated member of the worship team at Hope.