While most people consider the question of the meaning of life to be the biggest mystery of all, in fact it’s one of the easiest questions we’ve confronted together in Questions from the Unsettled Mind. Why? Because we already know the answer! What is less clear, perhaps, is why it is the answer, but even more importantly for human destiny, why we ignore it.
Let’s start, then, with this question: if you are on your death bed, and you have one last chance to communicate something to your family, what do you tell them? What did the trapped cavers and submariners write on the little scraps of paper or plastic found after their bodies were retrieved? What was the most common message left on answering machines in NYC on 9/11 from those trapped atop the World Trade Towers? It is one and only one message: I LOVE YOU. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? And yet, they had probably said this to those same people tens of thousands of times before. So, why say it again? Why not say something practical, like don’t forget that the safety deposit box key is hidden in the lower level of the red toolbox in the garage, or be sure to debone Grandpa’s fish so that he doesn’t choke, or I hid $15,000 cash in a plastic bag under the ground in the crawl space beneath the kitchen? But that’s not what we say, do we? No, we say what we’ve been saying all along and must say one more time: I love you. So, what is the meaning of life? Without question, it is Love.
Jesus indicated the same thing, twice, when he was asked what the two greatest commandments were:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39, NABRE).
Notice that the operative verb in both commands is love. That verb of action says it all: to live is to love. Fail to love and life’s value plunges. This is why Jesus said that they are the greatest commandments. They are the greatest precisely because they unlock the most important principles of human life and meaning. If you want any chance at happiness, you will only find it through love.
We were created for one another. We find our fulfillment not in ourselves, but in one another.
But why love? Why is that the answer? Why not the pursuits that human beings actually give themselves to: success, wealth, experience, pleasure, fame, and power? The answer to this question lies at the core of what we are as human beings, because human nature was built as a community of love by its creator who is himself a community of love. When God created the world, he said of each thing that he had made that it was good . . . except for one thing which he said was not good! What was that? The man. God said it was not good that the man be alone. So, God took him into the field to name the animals, and as Adam named, he noticed that in spite of all these creatures surrounding him, that he remained alone. Now, that is extraordinary. Snow White didn’t seem all that alone as, surrounded by her furry friends, she sang and danced and cleaned the dwarves’ cottage! But the man was alone in spite of his animal menagerie. It follows that man’s loneliness was of a very particular kind, that he was designed so that furry friends could never suffice. God then put the man to sleep and created the woman for Adam. She was made “for” him, not merely as a gift-wrapped package, but in the sense that she was designed to meet the need that echoed his loneliness back to him. And Adam, so taken with her, immediately broke into poetry! Adam and Eve were created for one another. We, too, are created for one another. We find our fulfillment not in ourselves, but in one another.
Now, why is that? Why are human beings made for one another? The answer to that question also emerges from the Genesis text when God said “Let us make man in our image.” God is a plurality of persons in his essence. He always was, and he always will be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternally reciprocally loving divine community. God then made man in his image as two distinct persons (the male and the female) comprising one nature (man):
God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1, NABRE).
Human nature is a plurality of persons just as the divine nature is. It begins with man and woman in marriage and then blossoms into an abundance of children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and cousins. In other words, human nature is family. And that is why when everything is lost and the reality of the whole of our lives dawns on us, we are driven back to that one thing: we love them. Your life will never be satisfied apart from familial love, for just as God is a divine family, so we—made in his image—are likewise a family bearing the fruit of personhood.
From start to finish in this life family stands out as the bedrock of human moral pedagogue, offering us signal after signal that love is the meaning of life. We begin as children with this intense need to love our parents. Then we find that our household includes siblings and we discover the opportunity to learn the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. Then one day we meet our future spouse and learn a love so penetrating that it drives us away from our own mother and father to do what? To follow their example and establish yet another family. But if marriage is a tutorial for love—and it certainly is—surely the greatest cauldron of learning is children, for nothing demands so much of a human being while at the same time providing such astounding fulfillment as fatherhood and motherhood. Every day we are offered the choice: selfishness or self-giving love. Selfishness or self-giving love. Selfishness or self-giving love. When we choose ourselves, we find bitterness, emptiness, and terrible strain. When we choose them, we find ourselves too, because that is how it was from the beginning: we were made for one another, and we will never find happiness apart from loving one another.
In spite of everything in our experience screaming out to us that love is the answer, we nevertheless commit the most horrible and horrifying atrocities upon one another.
What’s bizarre is that in spite of everything in our experience screaming out to us that love is the answer, we nevertheless commit the most horrible and horrifying atrocities upon one another. That word: horror. It’s completely incompatible with love. But we wreak such horrors upon our neighbors, our friends, and our family, don’t we? Why? Because we’ve fallen for the lie that love is simply a feeling which may or may not attach to various experiences arbitrarily. On that account, the meaning of life proves vacuous, for what those intense emotions attach to varies. Why bother with parenting when you can plunge a syringe full of heroin into your arm? It’s easier. It’s quicker. And it’s a thrill! Who cares about one’s children, one’s spouse, one’s job, one’s country, one’s parents, and one’s Church when the needle is so close? Yes, except that ease, speed, and thrills aren’t happiness, and the heroin addict knows that he is empty, even while he is high, knows that he is cutting himself off from the very people capable of fulfilling him.
Love must be done, not experienced. It must be chosen, not fallen into. It must be earned, not squeezed into one’s arm.
We used to distinguish the illusion of happiness from the real thing, recognizing that pleasure can deceive some people into thinking that love is merely a feeling that—as pleasure—can be attached to any old activity. That would make love whatever we want it to be. That would make love compatible with the most abominable indifference, malice, and horror. But love is not a mere feeling. It’s a verb. Think about that. A verb. That means that it must be done, not experienced. It must be chosen, not fallen into. It must be earned, not squeezed into one’s arm. Why? Because love is first and foremost action, the action of self-giving for one’s beloved.
We say in theology that love is the greatest theological virtue. This means first, that love must be a habit to be real, a habit of constant choice, so that it drives down into our core, our characters. That is far more than a thrill, and accordingly, far harder. But why would anyone have supposed that the greatest thing ever should be easy? Was it easy for Americans to get to the moon? Was it easy to build the Great Pyramid? No, all greatness requires our all. And that is one of the deep lessons of the greatest commandment, that we love God with our all, every single human faculty.
Since happiness is the completeness of the whole person in love, it follows that trying to overfill only one element—like desire—cannot possibly produce happiness.
Which brings us to the second significance of calling love a theological virtue, for we say that the theological virtue of love is “infused” into us at baptism as a seed that must then grow into and throughout the totality of the human person, bringing every element of who we are into subjection to its ruling principle of self-giving: our intellect, will, imagination, desire, aspiration, and emotion. Since happiness is the completeness of the whole person in love, it follows that trying to overfill only one element—like desire—cannot possibly produce happiness. The pleasure seeker never finds anything more than perpetual boredom, anyway. But people who love are never bored. People who love are fulfilled, because love fills every element of who they are, transforming them into what the Church calls saints, people fit for knowing and loving the God who is perfect love. Thus must we learn love in this life, for love directs us to our ultimate fulfillment in the face of God, and that is the meaning of life.