That Dreaded Question
A few years ago, I asked myself, “What is the meaning of life?” I know—super cliché; but nevertheless I just genuinely had that question. I wasn’t having a kind of identity crisis nor was I worried that we were just walking around in a great ball of meaninglessness; but I did wonder, “What is the meaning of life?” I knew there was a meaning or purpose to my existence, but what was it? Another two questions I pondered were, “How to be happy,” and “What exactly gives us true happiness?” Lastly, I also wondered if these three questions were connected in any way. I had a big hunch that they had to be!
Choosing the Right Lens
When people look at the world, and by “people” I mean everyone, they look at it through an interpretive lens. It’s impossible to shake really because everyone has a set of unverified, and sometimes unverifiable, assumptions about the world. For example, I had, and have, an interpretive lens that I received from the oldest institution still on earth: The Catholic Church. The Church presented to me their worldview and now I believe it to be true. Why? Because I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But that’s an article for another time!
Does this mean that the world is different for everyone and that the answer to “What is the meaning of life?” is different for everyone? NO! Truth is objective and if it is true for one person then it’s true for everyone. I don’t mean that if my favourite colour is red, then everyone’s favourite colour has to be red. But if Jeremy Duo’s favourite colour is red, then it is absolutely true for everyone that Jeremy Duo’s favourite colour is red! But it’s not; it’s blue.
Another example is that of God. I believe God exists. Maybe you don’t. But if God exists, then He exists for me, for you, and for everyone on this planet and all the other ones. Similarly, if He doesn’t exist, then He doesn’t exist for anyone! He cannot exist for me and not for somebody else. This is different from belief. I might believe it and you might not. That’s ok, but our beliefs don’t affect the reality behind them.
The reason I bring this up is because I want you to bear with me. This article is written while looking at the world and the meaning of life through a Catholic worldview that you might not share. What I ask, however, is that you hear me out till the end before you decide. Why? Because I think what I’m going to say is objectively true for everyone whether they believe or not and I think that you might agree once you finish reading. If you don’t agree by the end, we can still be friends who disagree!
The First Principle
In Catholic thought, when we look for a principle that is going to be applied universally, i.e. a principle that we can apply to all things, it needs to be true for the cause of all things: God. Whatever the meaning of life is, it needs to be found somehow in God from whom all things flow. If the meaning of life is “blue,” for example, then it wouldn’t make much sense if God were red.
Now, when we look at God through the Catholic Tradition we realise that there isn’t a very long list of principles that apply to Him. But, there is one that stands out by far: God is a Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What we can glean from this is that there is “relation” in God: The Father is not a father in and of Himself, but is a Father because He has a Son. The same goes for the Son. There is a Son because He has a Father. And, the same even goes for the Holy Spirit: The love between the Father and the Son is so real that it is its own person—the Holy Spirt.
None of them came about before or after any of the others, though. They are all eternal and uncreated. It works under the same principle as a human family. Just as I didn’t become a father before my wife became a mother or my son became a son, so the Father didn’t become a Father before the Son became a Son. Now, in God there was no “before” because the three Persons are eternal but the principle is the same. Jeremy and Stephanie did of course exist before Álvaro, but “Father,” “Mother,” and “Son” all happened at the same time at the moment of the son’s conception. And, similarly, this conception also happened because of the love that the to-be Father and Mother shared. Confused? You’re in good company!
This Matters because…?
What’s the meaning of this explanation? The meaning is that the driving principle in God is the principle of self-gift; the gift of self! You see, the Father eternally gives Himself to the Son. This has been going on for all eternity and will never end. In return, the Son receives that love and eternally reciprocates and gives His own love to the Father. And, as I said before, this love is so real that it is its own Person and we call Him “the Holy Spirit.” They are all constantly giving themselves to each other out of love and what they are giving is themselves.
In addition, this constant giving is what makes them “one.” Again, it’s just like a human family. Genesis 2:24 says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” They become one! They are obviously still two people and so there are two persons but there is also a unity to them that was not previously there. When a child comes into the picture, it gets even clearer. We now have a new person who is the flesh of his or her father and mother. The child himself embodies the one-flesh union of the parents, yet is its own new person too!
Self-gift, then, is the eternal principle of creation’s first principle, which is God. We now have an answer then! What is the meaning of life? The meaning of life is the gift of self; to give oneself to the other faithfully, fruitfully, and without reservation. This is how to be happy; this is how to find true happiness. Let’s see, however, if this answer holds up.
Test Everything, Hold Fast to What is Good
First, look into your own experiences and see if there’s any suggestion that this might be true. I, for one, can tell you that the times that I have been happiest in my own life were the times that I was totally living for somebody else and not for my own self-interests. Those times when I have suffered to help a friend or even a stranger have been the times when I have felt most fulfilled in my life (no matter how stressed-out the occasion might have made me). And, yes, weirdly, suffering for the cause makes it all the more fulfilling! In those very times, I’ve even completely forgotten about my own needs.
If you can’t think of any occasions in your life where you’ve done something like this, then I suggest you try it. Completely forget about yourself and try to bend over backwards, without reservation, for somebody else who needs it and then see how you feel.
Second, let’s look at the Church’s documents and one in particular. One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was a document called Gaudium et Spes. This document is about the Church’s role in the modern world. One of the many cool things about this document is that one of its main contributors was Karol Wojtyła a.k.a. Pope St John Paul II.
Straight to the Point
In paragraph 24 §3, Gaudium et Spes says that
…man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
That’s pretty explicit! Look around. Nowadays, it’s become quite popular to have somewhat of a crisis over who you are. “Who am I?” cry out many teens and even some adults. Then, you often see them packing their bags to go on some adventure to see if they can “find themselves.” The interesting thing is, where do many of these people tend to go? They tend to go on some kind of adventure where they volunteer and give of their time and effort to help others. Coincidence? I don’t think so. In the depths of our hearts this principle pulls us. I think it’s something that God has put within us. Sooner or later, we all try to respond to the bold proclamation of Gaudium et Spes quoted above—The sincere gift of self is the only way to find ourselves!
The Greatest Gift of Self
Whatever man is called to do in his life, there is one man who has done it all before and has done it perfectly: Jesus Christ, “the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2) and because of this, He has become our “model of holiness” (CCC 459). Therefore, let us look at some of Jesus’ key actions and see if our answer to the quest for the meaning of life holds up.
The Bible’s Most Famous Verse
John 3:16 is the Bible’s most famous verse. You see it everywhere: On bumper stickers; on TV; in Sports events, both on and off the field; and on countless billboards. Why? Because it captures the essence of the Gospel pretty well in one beautifully-constructed sentence:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Nice fun fact, Jeremy, but what’s the point? Well, if it’s true that the a son is a certain embodiment of his father as I mentioned above, and with that taking John 14:9, which says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” then for the Father to give us His only-begotten Son is one of the greatest gifts of self known to man, among two others!
The Two Others
First, the Crucifixion. Not much needs to be said about this obvious gift of self. The Son of God gave Himself up for the sins of the world. He gave His very self, His very life, to free us from death. Life Himself died and destroyed death on the third day so that death would have no grip over those who accept this gift and follow Him. All of us die because we are born, but He was born because He needed to die. I think we can agree that this is a huge gift of self accompanied by the greatest magnitude of suffering to have the fullest of meaning (remember what I said above about suffering and the gift of self?).
The Gift of Self Par Excellence
Second, and the greatest gift of self that humanity has ever seen…
This is my body… given for you.
The Eucharist, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, is the gift of self par excellence. Can it get any more obvious than that? It is the most beautiful of consummations that history has seen. The Lord Jesus, as St Augustine says, “held Himself in His own hands” and gave Himself to us, and continues to do so through His priests, that we might become one with Him.
Remember what the gift of self at the highest level brings about? Unity. If a married man and woman consummating their marriage makes them “one flesh” according to the book of Genesis, how much more do we become “one flesh” by accepting Jesus’ flesh into our own flesh in the most real of ways? And we don’t just become “one flesh” with our spouses or with the rest of the Church, we also and most especially become “one flesh” with God Himself “through Christ our Lord.”
This is something that writers have poured out the earth’s weight in ink over throughout the centuries. Perhaps an article about this of my own might follow soon, but for now, I’ll let Scott Hahn have the last word on the issue.
As both Priest and Victim, Christ offers the one perfect gift of self (see Hebrews 8:1–3). Unlike the sacrificial animals offered by the Levite priests, Christ no longer suffers, bleeds or dies. Yet He truly offers Himself—both in heaven and upon our altars in the Mass—in order to sanctify us and deepen our communion with Him. (A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture, 251.)
You can read and understand more about The Eucharistic Covenant here.
What Do You Think?
Of course, I’m biased, but I think these few points make a compelling case. I really do think that when somebody around you has their next identity crisis and you find them asking “What is the meaning of life? How can I find true happiness?” you can answer boldly: “The gift of self!”
Now I want to know from you. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section below why or why not and let me know what you think about specific aspects that I’ve covered. Give yourself to me via the comments section! And again, if you disagree, what is the meaning of life to you and why?
Recommended Reading to Go Deeper
These are a few books that will really help you go deeper if you think this kind of thinking and way of seeing things is true. If you don’t, they might convince you more than I!