Her question stopped me cold. We were talking of other things – our families, the coming year, mutual friends – when, without any break or catch of breath, she asked, “Charlie, do you have any sense of what your life means?”
It was one of those New Year questions, I guessed, and even though she was asking me, I felt she was asking herself as well. I immediately flashed back 14 years when, out of the blue, I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and I heard myself thinking, “Thank God I have lived a life with meaning.” Her question was asking me what I had meant by that. I knew she was not looking for a philosophical take on the meaning of life itself, but something more personal. I told her about the cancer and my reaction but I could not spell out all that her question has since stirred up.
For me, a meaningful life has never been measured by anything other than finding the truth of self and helping others to do the same. An oversimplification, certainly, and not something I might have said years ago when I thought the truth of me was in place as a priest. But I discovered the meaning of me was not.
Back then, I thought a meaningful life was all about answers, plenty of which I had as a young priest. When I grew to realize that questions, not answers, were the heart of being human as well as the heart of faith, everything changed, my self especially. It was as if I had finally found the right end of a telescope.
A meaningful life, I have learned, is in its questions – questions I was taught to confront and often fear while being trained to answer the ones I knew how to and finesse or shun those Idid not. Learning to live with and into questions opened a whole new (I almost wrote “brave”) world to me. So, my friend’s question was not so unsettling as it was challenging.
Knowing I have lived a life with meaning comes down to a handful of factors:
• I have grown, often despite myself;
• I have learned from my mistakes – well, most of them;
• I have loved and been loved;
• If I have not made the world better, I have at least bettered my self and have helped others do the same;
• I have lived a life of faith and of responsibility to my beliefs; if not always to the best of my ability, at least to the limits of my humanness.
I would be remiss if I did not say my life finds its meaning most in my friends and family, my wife, children and grandchildren. The footprints I leave behind may quickly disappear, but knowing they continue on with even a hint of what was me is meaningful as well.
I realize that these are the words of an aging self. My friend’s question may have prompted them, but am I wrong in hoping that youngsters of every age may hear in them something of themselves?