A Life's Worth

My wife and I had a friend over for brunch the other day, and as the plates were being cleared, the friend asked casually why it is we feel a need to help other people harness their energies. It was a simple enough question, the sort of conversation-starter you toss out at the end of a meal, but as we chased this question around the table something unpleasant began to evolve. All our attempts to answer the question only agitated our friend. Even after my wife said, “Let’s stop talking about this, it’s only making us upset,” the conversation somehow continued. I felt as if I had stumbled into an Edward Albee play. It soon became apparent that we were talking about this man’s long life and whether it had been meaningful or meaningless: Somehow the value of his life’s work hinged on the answer to this question. It was no wonder we couldn’t answer it.

The scene ended quite dramatically, with my wife explaining that she did not know how to talk about this subject without upsetting him. An immense silence followed. Our friend closed his eyes, gathered himself, and changed the subject. I was admittedly angry that he had dumped this drama into our laps, and I am certain I made things worse—but I still felt for him. What could he do? What do you do with a terrible question like “Was my long life meaningful or meaningless?”

The answer is you don’t ask it. I believe our friend was asking this question because he was changing. I believe he was asking it because those values he had lived by so passionately as a young man were not serving him anymore and he was wondering if he let them go now in his old man-hood if he would have invalidated his entire life.

The idea that a life is measured in the number of consecutive enlightened years is nihilistic. I may not be an old man just yet, but I hope that if some final, culminating epiphany arrives on my deathbed that I will savor that moment of clarity, just as I have tried to savor all the moments leading up to it. This is not a pass or fail assignment. Everyone passes in the end, and everyone is forgiven for the simple human journey of finding the truth in their own time.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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