It started as a joke. When I wrote the opening page for my blog I said that I would talk about all sort of things, including the meaning of life. It was a throw-away line, a joke.
But then came my very first comment from quite possibly the very first visitor to my blog. The delightfully named Spiderg1rl said: “the answer to life, the universe and everything – Oh I eagerly await that.”
It cheered me up so much to get a comment that I had to change my mind. I simply had to write about the answer to life, the universe and everything. As a way of saying thank you to my first visitor.
And, no, I couldn’t dodge the issue by saying it’s 42.
Let’s start from the middle, because beginnings can be tricky. Douglas Adams said that the answer was 42 because … it might be as good an answer as any. Maybe there is no meaning. Or perhaps we all have different meanings of life. Life is what we make it.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second question was “what is the question?” What exactly are we looking for when we search for the meaning of life?
I would like to suggest an answer. For me, the ultimate question is “What should I be doing?” What should I be doing with my life? With this day? With my career? With my writing, my family, the next five minutes?
If you ticked the box marked atheist on the census form, you might think that life is an eternity of nothingness followed by a brief spell of … this! … followed by another eternity of nothingness. A bird flies through an endless dark sky. It flies in through the window of a lively hall. There is sight and smell and colour. People talking. A fire burning. A suckling pig looking rather unhappy. Then the bird flies out again into another endless night.
Or you might think that the second eternity is spent in paradise or a very hot place. Or being reincarnated as a grasshopper.
Either way, what we do in this brief spell of sentience is pretty important. We might not all agree on what happens in the sequel, but I think we are all interested in what we do with this bit.
If the question is “What should I do?”, we can cross off a few things that are probably not the meaning of life.
Fame, wealth, glamour? I don’t think so. They might help feel a little better for some of the time, but that’s not the complete answer. Once you have passed a certain point, anything else is just gilding the gilding on the lily. And besides, there is always someone with a newer Ferrari. Being poor might make you sad – being super-rich does not guarantee that you will be happy.
Admittedly, it is probably preferable to be unhappy and rich than unhappy and poor.
Excellence? Maybe, maybe. You might be the absolute number one in your chosen field, but does that guarantee happiness? Or that you can stay number one with your competitors snapping at your heels. And with 7 billion people on this planet, we can’t all be number one.
Spiritual fulfilment? If that floats your boat, then fine. Then your problem might be deciding which prophet to follow. So many choices …
Having a good time, hedonism, pleasure? Hmm. Perhaps. Some of the time. The morning after can be a bit of a drag. And you can’t help feeling that there ought to be something more.
After half a century of research, I have come to a conclusion. The best meaning of life that I have heard so far is … do your best.
Yup, that’s it. Do your best. Nothing more, nothing less. Three little words.
What’s that? You are disappointed? You expected something a bit more elaborate? Then let me explain. There is a lot more to “do your best” than you might imagine.
It is a fool’s goal to try to be perfect. It is unattainable. And that just leaves us feeling as if we have failed. Why kick ourselves for something that is impossible? Instead we should reward ourselves for doing the best we can.
When we send our children to school we sometimes encourage them to pass their exams, to come top of the class, to score a goal, to win a gold medal. We think we are helping them, pushing them on to greater things. We are saying “We love you and we want you to succeed.”
But what our children sometimes hear is “we won’t love you if you fail.” And that is a horrible message for any child. Love should be unconditional. There are no ifs, no buts, no qualifying criteria. Love is love. It should always be there. It does not have to be earned.
So the message we should send our children to school with is … do your best. Whatever you achieve we will love you for it, as long as you try.
I can see some of the muscular alpha males getting a bit restless at this point. This all sounds a bit wussy. A bit lovey-dovey. The answer to life, the universe and everything is a My Little Pony soppy thing about lurve?
Wait a second. Do your best can also be a powerful tool for achieving. Most of us spend our lives not doing our best. We do things half-heartedly. We procrastinate. We self-publish that novel full of spelling mistakes because …. ah, it’s good enough. No-one will notice.
And that’s when we end up feeling unfulfilled. We get to the end of the day and … we haven’t done much. Watched TV. Had an indifferent conversation with the people we love. Dreamed about doing something, decided it was too much like hard work, did something else instead.
This day only comes once. It could be a great day or it could be just another day. A groundhog day.
Do your best is a kick in the pants to make something happen, but it’s also permission to fail. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then … that’s okay. Try again. Keep doing your best.
You might think that this applies to the big things in your life. That aspiration to write a novel. Becoming a gazillionaire. Fortune and glory. Nope – doing your best covers every part of your life. Saying hello and being nice to the people you meet. What we eat. The pleasurable things in life. There is nothing wrong with downtime. We all need to rest. Let’s just make it quality downtime.
On the desk where I write I have a quote from “Write, publish, repeat.”
“Do you know what truly separates people who succeed from those who fail? It’s simple: People who do the work succeed. People who don’t fail.”
The people who achieve things in life are the ones who do things. They try. They have a go. They put in the hard miles.
How do we put this into practice? Every moment of every day, we ask ourselves – what’s the most important thing I could be doing right now? And then we do that thing to the best of our ability. Not half-arsed, sloppy, it’ll do. The best we can do.
The acid test comes when we snuggle under the duvet at the end of the day. We can smile to ourselves that we did our best today. We ticked lots of things off our list. We made time to love and to be loved. We had fun. We achieved. We did things as well as dreamt them.
No regrets for the things we didn’t do. We did our best, and that’s all we can expect. Tomorrow we will try to do better. That will be our new best.
If you can go to bed feeling like this – happy, exhausted, proud of yourself, contented – then you won’t need to ask what the meaning of life is.