Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Making Life Matter

The boy boasted that he knew "everything."

"That's pretty cool," I answered. "Everything?"

"Everything. Ask me any question."

"What is the meaning of life?"

Without missing a beat, he replied, "Ichiro."

Solid response. The second best answer to that question I've ever heard from a preschooler, second only to the five-year-old who laughed as she dismissed me, "That's silly. It doesn't mean anything."

I don't make a habit of asking young children about the meaning of life, but over the years, usually while goofing around, I've probably posed it a couple dozen times. Aside from these two responses, every other child has simply ignored me, not even shrugging and I don't blame them. It is, at bottom, an uninteresting question, despite its apparent popularity among philosophers and theologians.

While I'm certain there is someone out there who has experienced a child who has expressed an abiding interest, by and large children don't tend to concern themselves with such philosophical pap as the meaning of life. They are generally too busy to naval gaze about any picture bigger than the one in which they are presently engaged. In other words, while we are searching for meaning, they are busy making life mean something.

From where I sit, the question, "How do I make my life matter?" is a much more productive question. Not only is there a knowable answer, but something about which we can actually do something. It's a truly compelling question in that the answer is unique to each of us. It's the question that should stand at the center of education, "How do I make my life matter," yet we use the power invested in us as adults to divert the flow of children's curiosity away from its natural course and into the aqueducts of standardized curriculum that we've constructed to guide and steer them. Is it any surprise that the "brightest" among them conclude that grades, test scores, and elite universities are what matters most? Is it any wonder that children who find our curricula irrelevant (another way of saying "meaningless") come to think the fault is in themselves. Even the most understanding adults tell these children, "You can do better" and fret about them when they a shrug, "But why?"

Parents famously want their children to be happy. Most teachers I know feel the same way, yet we all know that happiness is, at best, a temporary condition. I assert that what we really want is for our children to find a meaningful life and the only way to do that is to make it yourself. When preschoolers ignore my questions, it's not from rudeness, but rather because it is an irrelevant question. That hole they are digging in the sand? That's totally relevant. That game of make believe they're weaving with their friends? That's what matters. When we play, we are in the continual process of making our lives matter, right now, the only time there is. Play is how we learn to construct a life of purpose. It's when we play that we make life matter. If life means anything, it's that.


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