Monday, January 03, 2022

How To Live A Meaningful Life

In 1979, Douglas Adams, in his novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, revealed the definitive answer to life, the universe, and everything. It is 42. This is significant in that it is absolutely the correct answer, but you would have to be something other than human (with our limited ability to perceive life, the universe, and everything) in order to understand it.

Adams wasn't the first to put the question of the meaning of life to rest, nor will he be the last. Indeed, in 2017, Emily Esfahani Smith published her book entitled, The Power of Meaning.  However, she left the domain of 42 to itself, focusing instead on how we humans construct meaningful lives. She identifies four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence. 

The more connected we feel to our family, friends and community (belonging), the more we are motivated by positive long-term goals (purpose), the more skillfully we can weave a narrative from the threads of our life (storytelling) and the more we focus our energies on something larger than ourselves (transcendence), the more meaningful our lives are.

As important adults in the lives of young children, it seems to me that one of our highest responsibilities is to help them in this project, not so that they will, in the future, have meaningful lives, but so that they are free, right now, to live meaningfully. We often consider Adams' answer of 42 to be a kind of a joke, especially when we learn it took the greatest computer ever built 7.5 million years to compute it, but when it comes to children, we nevertheless assume that it will take decades of blood, sweat, and tears for their lives of meaning to finally emerge. It's the assumption behind the drill-and-kill, adult-directed model of education, the one that values answers (such as 42) over questions.

The world needs more people who know how to live lives of meaning. These are the people who have, no matter what their age or stage, come alive in the world for a day, a week, or a year. It begins with belonging, or what we in the ECE world usually call "connection." Sadly, most American children will be returning this week to schools that go to great lengths to prevent connection. They will be scolded or even punished for playing or even talking with their friends, except during specific, usually limited, scheduled moments. Their interactions with one another will be proscribed by curricula that they did not choose. They will be judged not by their contributions to their community, but rather as individuals against whom they will be ranked.

In a play-based program, young children are, within the context of community, free to dream, to ask and answer their own questions, and to set positive goals for themselves both alone as as a member of something greater. They are self-motivated because it is their purpose. Sadly, most American children will  be returning this week to schools where their "purpose" is imposed upon them and where their teachers, therefore, must go to great lengths to motivate them.

It is from playing within the context of community that children begin to tell the story of themselves, to understand who they are, and how they fit as they pursue meaningful lives in a world of people also pursuing meaningful lives. This, I imagine, is the world in which most of us would want to live, one in which my purpose and your purpose can not just co-exist, but must merge together into a single, magnificent narrative of belonging. This collective storytelling has always been the work of humanity, yet sadly, most American children will return this week to schools that arrogantly presume to tell their stories for them, that label them, that judge them, and that shame them when their story doesn't fit the approved and pre-determined narratives.

Belonging, purpose, and storytelling: when children are free to play together this is exactly what they spend their time doing. They are creating their lives of meaning, which is what the world needs more than anything else right now. In the future, their community might change, their purposes will most definitely change, and new chapters to their stories will be written, but they will have learned how to create a life of meaning. That is everything. It is from this, and only this, that transcendence, the awareness of something larger than ourselves, can emerge.

So please know that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is, without doubt, 42, but the answer to how to live a meaningful life is different for everyone and it comes through playing in a place where we feel we belong. This isn't something to be pushed off into the future. It could and should be happening right now.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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