Find Your Life’s Meaning

Does your life have meaning?

If so, how? The answer helps you appreciate your blessings and seize your opportunities.

Having a clear idea of the answer is in itself a blessing. Most people have no idea.

They trudge through life, day after day, not knowing why they do it. Sometimes they feel happy. Often they feel miserable. And then it’s over.

Is that all there is? Can that be all there is?

Here’s the good news: It isn’t and it can’t.1

Meaning is connection. We give meaning to words by connecting them to things in the world.

We give meaning to our lives in the same way, but we connect them to different kinds of things:

  • Beliefs and moral ideals
  • Relationships with people
  • Participation in communities
  • Working for important goals

If your life feels meaningless, it’s because you haven’t yet found the meaning.

You can find it, but there’s a catch.

There’s a time limit. You know what it is, but not when it is.

The time limit might seem like a bad thing, but it really isn’t.

Consider the painting shown at the top of this blog post: “School of Athens” by Raphael (1483-1520). It’s one of humanity’s greatest artworks. But it’s limited in space: 16 feet wide by 25 feet tall. If it were unlimited, people would see it everywhere they looked. They’d want it to go away. It would lose its beauty.

Or think about your favorite song (here’s mine). It’s limited in time. It starts and it ends. You enjoy it. But if it went on forever, you’d get so sick of hearing it that you wouldn’t want to listen to it anymore. It would lose its beauty.

Just like the painting and the song, your life is limited, both in space and in time. It is within those limits that you can find meaning and create something beautiful.

Whether it’s faith, relationships, communities, or goals, the meaning is something beyond yourself. Somehow, it speaks to your heart. It makes everything worthwhile.

So find it and do it. Connect. Act now. It’s a limited-time offer.

Footnote

  1. Different religious faiths have their own answers. I’m not addressing those here.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The One Where I Told a Little Lie

Honesty

Can you go through life and never tell a lie?

Honesty is the best policy. But it’s a policy — not an unbreakable rule.

If most of us weren’t honest most of the time, social life would be impossible. Nobody would ever believe anyone else. We couldn’t cooperate, have relationships, or depend on anyone for anything.

But I’ll be honest: I think that lying is occasionally okay:

  • When you’ve got a clear reason to do it.
  • When you’re unbiased because it doesn’t promote your own interests.
  • When it contributes to the welfare and/or happiness of others.

Here’s an example. It’s the one where I told a little lie.

When I was in graduate school, I taught several undergraduate classes as an associate instructor. And like all teachers, I liked some students better than others.

To avoid biased grading of term papers, I told my students to put their names only on the title page. They put their student ID numbers on the title page and on all the other pages.

Before grading the papers, I tore off the title pages so that I wouldn’t know whose work I was grading. Afterward, I used the student ID numbers to match the term papers with the title pages and the names of the students.

So all the grading was completely blind. No favoritism.

That’s what I told the students. But I lied. And I make no apologies for it.

It’s true that I did the first pass without knowing whose papers I was grading. But after I matched up the title pages and got the names, I made a second pass through the papers.

If I knew that a student was working very hard, I often added notes of encouragement or explanation. Once or twice, I raised a grade slightly. Nobody ever got downgraded. But if some students were doing their best and just needed extra help, I gave it to them.

So I stand by my belief that honesty is the best policy. And like most policies, it has exceptions.

What do you think about it?


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Forgiveness Can Mean Freedom

Forgiveness

When people have deceived or manipulated us, it’s difficult to forgive them.

I’ve worked for some terrific bosses over the years. One of them is Jim Grey, whose luck with his own bosses hasn’t been quite as good as mine.

Jim recently ran into a bad one, and he’s now wrestling with how to forgive.

Yes, yes, the Bible says we should forgive not just once, but seventy times seven. That doesn’t make it easy.

But we do need to forgive. Not just because the Bible said so, or for any cosmic reasons, but for our own sake.

As long as we hold onto our anger, we chain ourselves to the past. We can’t move forward. We can’t be happy. We can’t be at peace.

And even though we’re making ourselves suffer, our anger does no harm at all to the people who wronged us.

Just like Jim, I’ve had a few bad bosses. And if they stepped in front of my car on the highway, I might hesitate for a split-second before I braked. But I would brake, for three important reasons.

First, if I hit them, I’d get points on my driver license. My insurance rates would go up, and I’ve got a spotless driving record that I don’t want to blemish.

Second, if I decided to get even with everyone who’d ever taken a dump on my head, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I want to devote my time to positive goals.

Third, for some of them, just being the people they are is a worse punishment than anything I could do to them.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to feel warmly toward life’s malefactors — only that we can’t free ourselves from them unless we forgive them.

Unless we forgive them, they will be our life-long companions. And we deserve a better class of friends.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Eavesdropping on God and the Devil

Eavesdropping isn’t exactly a sin, but it’s certainly impolite.

And yet I couldn’t help it. Much.

I was getting some coffee in the break room. Outside, in the hallway, God was having an argument with the Devil.

I tried not to listen. But God has that deep, booming voice that kind of commands your attention. If you doubt me, just ask Abraham.

I peeked around the door to watch the fireworks.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know that the Devil works for God?

Well, he does. He’ll never be named “Employee of the Month” — attitude problems — but he’s essential. He provides the alternative to goodness. Without alternatives, there’s no choice; without choice, no free will; without free will, no sin or sainthood. That’s why God made him.

But now, the Devil was claiming to be more compassionate than the Deity. You’d expect him to have learned a lesson from the last time he challenged the Throne, but it’s his tragic flaw: pride. God knows, of course, and it’s probably why He tolerates the insubordination.

“I accept people as they are,” said the Devil. “I accept both the good and the bad about them, without discrimination or conditions. I don’t care what they’ve done. I don’t care if they’re batsh-t crazy. My embrace is open to all; it’s the ultimate of inclusiveness.”

“You, on the other hand” — he pointed impudently at the Lord — “You tie them down with rules and regulations: Be kind, not cruel. Forgive, don’t revenge. Be honest, don’t cheat. You forbid everything that their nature commands, and you command everything that their nature forbids. Is it any wonder that so many of them are screwed up?”

God let out a weary sigh — of course, He doesn’t actually get weary, but He seemed a little bored. He’s been listening to the same kind of complaints for millennia.

“Yes, you do accept them as they are,” God said. “You’re happy to let them wallow in the mud of ignorance and depravity. In fact, you prefer it that way.”

“I gave them the ability to be more than they are — to become their best selves. The choice must be theirs, or it means nothing. So I provide both the carrot and the stick to motivate them. If that’s exclusionary, well then too bad. People who choose to live justly should be rewarded for it. People who choose to lie, plunder, and murder have to answer for it.”

The Lord looked at his watch. He doesn’t actually need a watch, but wearing one seems to make Him feel closer to humanity.

“Are we done here?” He asked. It was only a rhetorical question, since God is omniscient. “I’ve got a meeting, and you should be getting back to DC.”


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Your Curse Can Be Your Blessing

Is your life “cursed” in some way?

A traumatic childhood? Health problems? Poor self-esteem?

You can turn your curse into your blessing.

The American novelist Ernest Hemingway said it well:

“Life breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong in the broken places.”

We’ve all got broken places. We can either sit and cry about them, or we can get strong. We can use our pain as fuel to improve ourselves and to do good in the world.

For example, I live in the shadow of a great man. My younger siblings compare themselves to each other. But as the eldest, I compare myself to our father. It’s a humbling experience. I feel as if I can never be good enough and can never accomplish enough.

But it’s also a blessing. It spurs me to work harder and to do more. Both I and the world are better off because of my “broken places.”

I’m also a slight hypochondriac. It motivates me to exercise daily and to watch my diet. I’m better off as a result.

What are your broken places? How can you turn them into your strongest places? How can you use them to make your life better?

It’s a question worth asking.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Who Gets Veto Power?

Veto

A while back, I worked for a tech company where I reported to the company’s CEO.

The main thing I learned was never to take a job at a company founded and run by a business-school professor.

The other thing I learned was that in the wrong hands, veto power can cause a lot of trouble.

Even though I reported to the CEO, the company’s board had to approve everything I produced.

By itself, that requirement was stupid but okay. If the board members wanted to be involved at that level of detail, fine.

The problem was that each individual board member had veto power. The board had to approve my plans unanimously. A single “nay” vote sent me back to the drawing board.

And two of the board members always disagreed with each other. No matter which one I tried to please, the other would veto what I did.

That’s the kind of brilliant setup you get from a business-school professor. My actual work was easy; getting the board to agree was damn near impossible.

So are there any general lessons to be drawn from that situation?

Fewer veto holders

Let’s simplify things: Suppose that only one board member wanted to veto everything. Then the company could never do what the majority thought was best. It would only have two choices:

  • Do nothing, or
  • Do what the single veto-holder wanted, against the judgment of the majority.

Applied to society

Similarly, consider a society in which, say, 0.15 percent of the population has trait X. In other words, 99.85 percent are not X, and fifteen-hundredths of one percent are X.

If you took the United States as an example, its current population is about 329,000,000. Then 328.5 million of the people would not be X, and 500,000 of them would be X.

Should law and social policy support the happiness of the 328.5 million people who aren’t X? Or should they be tailored for the 500,000 people who are X — in effect, giving them veto power over the majority?

Giving the X group veto power means hurting the majority to help the small (less than one percent) minority.

And suppose that in addition to group X, another small minority is Y, while another is Z. Do they all get veto power?

Then we’re back to the board of directors situation: multiple people who always veto each other. It becomes impossible for society to function.

Personally, I think that if other factors are equal, every person’s welfare should count equally. If you’ve got 328.5 million people whose welfare conflicts with the desires of 500,000 people, then you take care of the 328.5 million.

You do your best to avoid unacceptable harm to the 500,000, but you’ve done the math: 328.5 million is a lot more than 500,000. You take care of the vast majority. The minority will have to adjust. It shouldn’t get veto power.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Why Common Sense Is So Uncommon

Why is common sense so uncommon?

I’ve been reading Robert Curry’s excellent new book Reclaiming Common Sense.

It got me thinking about why I and many other people often lack common sense.

For example, in college I was a libertarian. Mainstream libertarians believe that each of us has rights limited only by the same rights of other people: e.g., “my right to swing my fist ends where your face begins.” As long as we don’t commit aggressive violence, coercion, or fraud against others, we may do anything we like. Government exists to defend our rights.

However, a friend pointed out a contradiction. If we may do anything we like, then we may delegate our right of self-defense to any third party, not just to the government. That leads to anarcho-capitalism, under which private businesses would perform all the functions of government. So for a while, I was an anarcho-capitalist. I eventually grew out of it, mostly by studying history. If a utopian social order has never existed anywhere for longer than five minutes, you start to think there’s a reason. There is.

Here’s another example. After college, I worked on Capitol Hill for a while. I had a libertarian acquaintance who took a lack of common sense to a whole new level. He argued publicly that child pornography should be legal because if it had already been made, it was not at the current time abusing any children. The abuse had happened previously. He said that child abuse itself should be illegal, but not its result after the fact.

I want to add that I don’t believe he’d ever been within 500 feet of any child pornography. He was just afflicted with what a professor of mine called “principle-itis:” pushing abstract principles to the point of complete absurdity.

A final example is from 2019. When anyone says that America is a great country, the standard reply is “Well, it was never great for minority X!” And that’s supposed to settle the argument.

Let’s grant their point: America in the past was not always great for blacks, gays, or for women who lacked some civil rights. Occasionally, it was awful. Undisputed.

On the other hand, you would search in vain for any real human society anywhere, at any time in history, where no group was treated worse than some other group. You would also find very few societies where minority groups were treated as well as they have been in America. And last but not least, America has been pretty good in most ways for the majority of people. On utilitarian grounds — the greatest good for the greatest number — it’s been aces all around.

Compared to an abstract ideal of perfection, America isn’t great. But compared to any other real countries, America is and always has been great. It hasn’t fully lived up to its founding ideals that “all [people] are created equal,” but at least it’s tried. Other countries haven’t.

And that’s one reason people lack common sense. They think only of abstract principles and ideals, not of what’s real or possible. But all are needed:

  • Without ideals, we can’t know what we should do.
  • Without realism, we can’t know how well we’re accomplishing it.
  • Without experience, we can’t know what’s realistic.

When you combine ideals with realism and experience, you get common sense.

It might be uncommon, but it doesn’t have to be. We need a lot more of it.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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