What is the point of life?
Few people are able to answer this question with unshakable confidence. Most of us, if we’re honest, would admit that the daily grind on this planet can be rather unsatisfying. The labor never pays off like we imagined. The respites never deliver like we hoped. There is more, right? We’ve all felt this deep down. There’s got to be more.
This World in Which We Live
This question is at the heart of the human condition, and it especially makes sense in the 21st century. We live within a society increasingly allergic to faith and anything truly supernatural. The mantra in the air we breathe is “what you see is what you get.” On the general, functional level, everyone has this craving for depth but most go about their lives as if God didn’t exist. Even many who acknowledge the presence of some higher power still act as if he’s not real, or at least not concerned with what we do. And all this leaves a vacuum for the truly meaningful.
The hipster eclipse of popular culture is a fascinating reaction to this vacuum. The emerging bohemian response in our day understands that the truly meaningful is not found in “status quo, upward mobility, and the American way,” but instead in community, justice, and peace (among other less modern phenomenons). There is something good in this trend, and there are many Christians who connect the dots to embody it holistically.1 But on the common level, in the way that would characterize those sitting around me at a neighborhood coffee shop in Saint Paul, the bohemian response to the “meaning vacuum” is a staunchness to find meaning in the hereness of this world. That is part of what all the thrift-store plainness and hand-crafted knick-knacks are getting at — value is put on the stuff you can only find here.
The mindset is universal immanence — which means, everything is within reach, earthy, ingenuous. There is enough wonder and beauty in this place that we don’t need to speculate about anything outside of it. You know, “Fireflies after dark, bless your soul, we are here and now, here and now” (“Be Okay”).
This is the world in which we live, full of confusion about what’s going on, and loaded with effort to figure things out.
That Missing Something
The truth is that the reason so many in our society think there must be more to this life is because, well, there is. Something is missing. I don’t mean in the way we think, necessarily, or in our perspective on this world. I mean there is something awfully absent in the bread and butter of humanity. We have a craving for something we’ve tasted before — something we once had, but now is lost. Call it glory and gladness.
Nacho Libre gets it. Do you remember when he asked Esqueleto, trying to convince him to join up for a tag-team wrestling match, “Aren’t you tired of getting dirt kicked in your face? I am! Don’t you want a little taste of the glory? See what it tastes like?”
Yeah, Nacho, we do. We all do. We know that “dirt kicked in our face” (or whatever metaphor you want to use) doesn’t correspond with the dignity we know we have as humans. There is greatness in our bones. We’ve tasted glory before, and we want it back.
But it’s actually about more than glory. Beneath and in and around the craving for glory is a craving for gladness. Humans want to be happy. Business leader Douglas Smith is banking on it. After being diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, the former CEO of Kraft General Foods reassessed his life and started asking the big questions. Smith now devotes his time to coaching and consulting people toward happiness. The first premise to his work is straightforward: “Everyone wants to be happy.” He writes,
We all have a deep yearning to live happily. In fact, the goal of achieving happiness underlies every decision we make. Whether we take a job or don’t take a job, get married or don’t get married, have kids or don’t have kids, give money or don’t give money — we think whatever we decide will bring us greater happiness. Happiness is what philosophers call an “ungrounded grounder.” Meaning that “because it will make me happy” is the ultimate answer in a long list of “whys.” Once we reach that point, there is no further grounding needed. (Happiness, Locations 131–135)
I think he’s right. Everyone wants to be happy. We all want to feel great. Glory and gladness — that’s what we’re all looking for.
Nail This Down
Underneath the angst and complexity of this life, somewhere down in there you’ll find this appetite for glory and gladness. We are all glory-chasers and pleasure-seekers, and that’s a wonderfully good thing. God made us this way. Sin has only corrupted what’s there, not created anything new. The sinful twist on us glory-chasers and pleasure-seekers is that we chase glory in ourselves and seek pleasure in the things of this world. We’ve gotten the object wrong, not the verb. We are still fundamentally creatures who crave glory and gladness.
We are all glory-chasers and pleasure-seekers.
And nailing this down is helpful for at least two reasons. First, it helps us know our own selves; and second, it equips us to love each other.
Our own hearts are jungles. With such thick underbrush, towering trunks, and twisted vines, it’s hard to ever know precisely what we feel about the varying circumstances we encounter. At least internally, our reactions to hard things tend to vacillate. We might feel one way, but then know we should really feel another — and then we have imaginary conversations in the shoes of both. Realizing our deep-seated appetite helps us bring order to the chaos. It’s not always cut and dry, but we’re sure to get somewhere if we pause for a moment to remember that deep in our bones we hunger for greatness. We want to be part of something bigger than the moment. God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
But then, we should also remember that glory-chasing and pleasure-seeking is something we all share in common. Like Pascal says, whatever different means we might employ, we all have pleasure in our crosshairs. And we can help the people in our lives sort through complexity and decision-making by pointing this out. There’s no need to poll your community to see where they stand. We all live next door to people, Democrat or Republican, who’d agree that, Yeah, we do value greatness and depth and meaning. And sure, we want to be happy.
And when that’s acknowledged, when people recognize this profound appetite for glory and gladness, then we’re on the cusp of some seriously meaningful conversation. Because those of us who have found the true glory and gladness have a lot to say, and plenty of reason to listen.