The Meaning of Life

Last year I took a class at UNR on Qualitative Research which taught methods for conducting in-depth interviews. I was tasked with conducting two interviews about a sociological concept that interested me. Apart from my academics and in my personal life, I had been thinking a lot about my own life:  what made me feel passionate, and what I might be here to do. I decided to take the project as an opportunity to interview two people that I thought would speak beautifully on the topic of “the meaning of life,” Rhonda Ashurst of the Reno Friends Meeting and one of the Buddhist priests from the Reno Buddhist Center, Rev. Shelley Fisher. At the root of this question was a desire to feel my soul a little and share an exceptionally profound idea with two incredible people.

After our interview, Rhonda suggested we co-lead a spiritual discussion on the topic for our Quaker Meeting, which we did in March 2021. I was excited about the opportunity to share this same space with one another through a spiritual discussion! Over the few weeks before the discussion, I had been researching Quaker beliefs about the meaning of life, and though I found a plethora of material about Friends’ beliefs and testimonies, and ways to inspire peace in one’s life, I had yet to find any definitive answer about the meaning of life. However, this is for good reason, as I do not believe there is one consensus about what the meaning of life is for the Society of Friends! I asked the Friends that they come to the discussion ready to speak about their own beliefs:  what has brought personal meaning to their own life, and how might we use this meaning to live in alignment with our own truth. Rhonda and I posed several of the following Queries during the discussion.

Queries

What do Friends believe to be the meaning of life? 

What do you believe to be the meaning of life? 

What is “meaning”?

It this meaning universal?

Is this meaning obtainable? 

Is this meaning of life the truth we should live in? If not, what truth should we live in?

What is the best sort of life? What brings value to life?

In addition to reading about the beautiful words spoken by Reno Friends during our discussion, I thought I might include some of my favorite quotes from my original interviews with Rhonda and Rev. Shelly Fisher.

“Well I think the question of the meaning of life is a very spiritual rooted question and for our Buddhist lineages the meaning of life is to live life in abiding joy, live life in the most joyful way that you can, being mindful of what brings you joy and letting go of things that do not bring you joy.” – Shelley Fisher

“You can live in gratitude, you can get back and so the meaning of life to me is trying to follow that path of living in a more joyful, calm, peaceful zone so that I can help others to find that place in their life too.” – Shelley Fisher

“For me I think there is a couple of aspects of what I consider the meaning or purpose of life. And that is to love. To both give love and to be vulnerable and open hearted to receive love. And that’s probably the greatest and highest value I think for me, and gives meaning to my life. And I think another piece of that is realizing that I am one with the Divine.” – Rhonda Ashurst

Our discussion was attended by 16 Friends and nearly everyone spoke. Once we opened the discussion, we were met with a beautiful, gathered flow of responses for over an hour and a half! Here are some of the highlights:

One Friend spoke about being at the waterfall with their best friend, watching the water and then laying on a rock afterwards in silence. They had in these moments a feeling of complete peace. They said then that their meaning of life is the “small moments of peace with someone we love.”

“We attribute meaning to our experiences and the choices we make as we go through life. I think we make the meaning as we go.”

“It’s important to focus on what matters at a deeper level. I’ve been taught by my family to work towards making the world a better place—less miserable and happier. I also think about death and what my life will mean later when I’m gone.”

“Service done through love and compassion. Listen to those you want to help and serve. Focus on them. Creating and making art (writing, playing the piano) with feeling.”

“Spending an hour listening to my mother talk about her cat is as important as anything on my To Do list.”

“Making the world a better place also makes me a better person. Doing what I feel good about doing – giving my gifts. There’s a lot of creativity and exploring when you are young. As you get older it’s tempered by what is still possible. Now I focus more on giving my kids wings to fly. My meaning has evolved over my life”.

“You come into life with a set of possibilities, and you follow the road you can take to develop those possibilities. Enjoy it! Make the most of what you’ve been given. Have goals and keep growing throughout life”.

“I think of what Buddha said: The meaning of life is suffering. For me there are two sides to being a Quaker: 1) to be in fellowship with people I love, and 2) to be in service together, to meet the suffering and try to move forward in a positive direction. What makes it bearable is humor.”

“Practice gratitude. Be grateful for what you do have.”

“I like the quote by William James in Varieties of Religious Experience: There is an unseen intentional order in the cosmos. Our highest duty is to attune ourselves to this order.”

“Before this discussion, I took my kids for a walk through a meadow, and we could see Spanish Peak covered in snow above. I thought about all the years we have walked this path and the many events and observations we’ve shared. Tonight, I heard the blackbird sing and thought about the return of spring and the cycles of life. There is always spring renewal after the dead of winter. For me, nature contains the meaning of life.”

This reminded another friend of a favorite quote: “Nature always shows the colors of the Spirit.”

“It’s not all about me, my career/finances, or who has the most toys. Relationships with others and the Divine is what matters. Trying to make a difference in the world through my work has been meaningful. For me, the meaning has changed over the course of my life”.

“How do we measure doing enough? I don’t feel like I do enough. I made dinner for a friend last week, but it seems others do more. What makes a meaningful difference?” (This was met by Friends reminding her about the difference she makes, and that cooking a dinner for a friend does make a difference.)

“I once made fun of conscientious objectors, then I became one. Later I met the son of one of the objectors I’d taunted in my youth. I’ve learned that what something means to us can change and come full circle over the course of our lives”.

“I like this Tagore quote: I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw it was service. I acted and saw service is joy. I think about Mother Theresa and the extreme suffering she witnessed and felt called to work with and the way she did it with peace and joyfulness. If we listen, we will be led.”

“In high school, a teacher taught me to see a bucket of rainbows as a symbol of joy and hope. I learned that when I fill someone else’s bucket, it fills mine too. I ask myself, how am I going to fill the bucket today?”

“Lately, I’ve been reading Victor Frankl who survived the holocaust. He points out that it is important to ask: What does Life expect of us? This can change from day to day and throughout life. I also like this phrase from Pablo Neruda: I love the handful of the earth that you are. We are stardust. Personally, my offerings are small. I try to be still and listen to the voice within and let it guide me as I go, putting one foot in front of the other”.

“Trust in the Universe and that there is meaning in suffering and death. Trust the process. Be curious. We are always becoming, as we came here in an imperfect state. We are part of a joint venture, trying to complete the work of God”.

“I can think myself in circles on this topic. A better question for me is: How do I live? I try to be good to others, be kind, be here and know God is here with me. I work on calming my worries and thoughts and being aware and present. I like this quote I heard once: Just shut up and dance!

“I never pondered the meaning of life when I was young. Later I thought it’s the meaning I give to it. Now I realize it is love and how I show it.” 

As you can gather from the multitude of thoughtful and beautiful words above, there seems to be an interwoven truth for many people, and yet, no definitive answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? I suspect this is why it may have been difficult to find an answer in the research done beforehand. It’s a tricky paradox, in the sense that there is no meaning of life; and yet, there are billions of meanings of life. They are the meanings that live in the hearts of every single person, and how this meaning shapes and influences the way they live their lives, live in peace, and love their fellow people. That is the beauty of the question: that it will always have an infinite response and I think we can find solace in this infinity, as it is what connects us all.

I want to thank all the Reno Friends for opening up and sharing their thoughts on this subject. We ask that any of those who come to read this continue to discover what their own meaning of life is, to live in their truth, and to share in the light of this wonderful life.

Catie Polley, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting