Without any gods or any afterlife, what makes for a life well-lived?
For most religious and spiritual believers, life’s meaning tends to be framed in external terms, and in terms of forward motion. Not always, but generally. For believers, life’s meaning tends to be framed in terms of making God/ gods happy, and/or getting to some happy afterlife. In fact, one of the things that baffles believers most about non-belief is how we experience meaning in our lives when we don’t have God deciding that meaning for us, and when we don’t have that teleological sense of charging through this life to get to the next one. And it can be hard for atheists and humanists to explain how we create our own meaning for ourselves, how we live without convincing ourselves that our meaning was created by an external party, and still experience that meaning as… well, as meaningful.
But even in a secular context, we still often think of a meaningful life — a full life, a life well-lived — as a life with some sort of direction. Raising children. Creating art. Building and growing a business. Doing political or social change work and making the world a better place.
These are all good ways to live. I’m deeply engaged in more than one of them myself. I’m a very driven person, a very forward-moving person, and I do tend to think of the meaning of my life in terms of where it’s going, and what I’m achieving, and what I’ll leave behind after I die.
But I don’t think these are the only good ways to live.
I don’t think a life well-lived has to be a life with accomplishments. I think it can be a life with experiences. I think we can see the meaning of our lives, not just in terms of where we’re going, but in terms of where we are, and where we’ve been.
I think a life well-lived can simply be an interesting life. One with travel. Adventures. Hobbies. Books. Music. Sex. Friendships. Love. A life well-lived can be a life with an upward- and- forward career trajectory… but it can also be one with a whole lot of weird-ass jobs. It can be a life spent building and improving a home… but it can also be a life lived in a dozen different cities. It can be a life making the world better for more people… but it can also be a life getting to know some of those people. It can be a life spent achieving a solid set of accomplishments… but it can also be a life spent enjoying a series of cool hobbies. It can be a life with a bookshelf full of books you’ve written… but it can also be a life with bookshelves full of books you’ve read.
And frankly, if there aren’t people to experience stuff, what point is there to the accomplishments of all the accomplishers?
As a writer, my life’s work is only meaningful if there are readers. A musician’s work is made meaningful by music lovers. An architect’s work is made meaningful by people living and working in their buildings. Etc. Accomplishment and creativity are two-way streets: they require a recipient to make the connection. And it’s the connection that makes them meaningful.
Not sure where I’m going with this: this is sort of a “late-night musings” post, and somewhat appropriately to the topic, I’m not sure it has a point. But I think if atheists and humanists are going to say that we create our own meaning, that life is meaningful and precious even without a creator and an afterlife, then we should let go of the teleological thinking that’s so inherent to religion. We should let go of thinking that the only meaningful life is one spent in forward motion.