What’s the point of life?
That’s a big question, I know. It’s one that countless people have asked throughout history and countless others have tried to answer. It’s also a question that I tend to ponder when I’m at my lowest moments.
I’ve posed this question to my therapist, sobbing, as she gently nudged a box of tissues toward me. I’ve asked this question of my friends, sobbing, as they kindly poured more wine into my glass. I’ve offered this question to my partner, sobbing, as he reached out for another hug.
(Side note to every person who’s faced this question and a deluge of tears: I’m sorry, and thank you.)
Their responses are usually varying and vague, and often wind up directed back at me. That’s only fair. I think there’s an unspoken rule that when we’re looking for an answer to something subjective and unknown, it’s up to us to find it for ourselves.
I find it telling that I don’t question the purpose of life when I’m at my highest moments. Or even when I’m at my perfectly ho-hum middle moments. It’s in the dark moments, when I’m not looking for an answer as much as I’m looking for an escape from pain, that I question my existence. My inquiry is borne of desperation: Please tell me what’s the point, because I need to understand why I’m suffering.
The past few days have been lovely, full of long conversations with friends and plenty of time outdoors. Now that I’ve made it through the second anniversary of Jamie’s death, things feel lighter and more hopeful. Life, as it would seem, is moving forward; even though I’m still figuring out what my new normal looks like, things aren’t as bleak as I often told myself they would be. I’m feeling clear-headed and open-hearted, which seems like a good place to revisit that age-old question.
So, what’s the point of life?
We all have to figure out our own purposes for living and being and doing. And for me, that purpose is love.
My dad had a favorite saying: “If you don’t love everyone, it doesn’t count.” The more I think about it, the more that seems like the answer to the life question. The purpose of our time on this earth is to love ourselves and to love everyone we encounter. We may not always be able to change the world, but we can change our own lives and the lives of others through love.
I can feel some of you rolling your eyes at this. Trust me—if my therapist, friends, or partner offered this answer to me while I was sobbing, they’d get a snarky response in return. When I’m deeply hurting, love feels like the farthest thing I’d find solace in. My reaction is to take out the pain on myself, some unsuspecting stranger, or the people I care about most. It sucks, but it’s human and it happens.
I won’t always feel as clear-headed and open-hearted as I do right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hurt version of future me reads this essay and thinks it’s overly saccharine and simplistic. But, I have to admit—even though future hurting-Katie may not want to hear it—the breakthroughs I have when I’m in a healthy emotional place tend to be pretty solid.
There are manufactured symbols of love everywhere this week, which may cause pain for many of us. For me, it’s a reminder that I have a lot of work to do when it comes to self-love. It’s a cliché, but damned if it’s not true: We’re only as good at loving others as we are at loving ourselves.
I like the idea of viewing life as an endless spiral staircase. As Panache Desai explains, we gain greater and greater perspective with each step we take, even as we’re going in circles. We all have patterns and problems that we encounter again and again. I struggle with negative self-talk, feeling like a failure, and worrying what others think of me, all of which boil down to a near-constant challenge: loving myself.
Desai says although our impulse is to try and break those repetitive cycles, we can learn from them.
“Our patterns are there for a reason,” he wrote. “They’re meant to teach us something important. Eventually, what we really want is to get to a place of appreciating our patterns — because regardless of how we perceive it in the moment, everything that happens in our life is a catalyst for change and growth. When you feel as if you've tripped and fallen on the same exact step over and over again—whether that step is financial turmoil, or heartbreak, or disappointment, or lust—you are, in fact, on a new and different step, on a higher flight of stairs, each and every time.”
We circle through the same problems, questions, and habits, again and again. And while it might be discouraging to find yourself facing a familiar challenge, it’s important to remember that you’re constantly leveling up. You’re exploring those issues from a higher step, with all the wisdom and experience and grit and humor you’ve accumulated along the way.
This won’t be the last time I question the point of life. Maybe I’ll come up with a different answer next time, or maybe I’ll land on the same conclusion. But today, from this level of my spiral staircase, I believe that the meaning of life is to give and receive love—to myself and others.
That’s a basic answer, but that could be a sign of truth. Some of the most important and lasting lessons in life are maddening in their simplicity.
French philosopher Albert Camus famously said, “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” He also said, “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.” That’s pretty depressing, but even that, at least in my opinion, can be interpreted as “the meaning of life is to love.” If you’re loving yourself, others, and the things you do, you’ll find plenty of reasons to live.
Is that saccharine enough for you, Camus?
p.s. I wrote a guest essay for Polina Marinova’s fantastic newsletter, The Profile, earlier this week. And My Sweet Dumb Brain just hit a small but mighty milestone!
p.p.s. Want to help My Sweet Dumb Brain continue to grow? Encourage a friend or two to subscribe! You can also share this issue on social media. And don’t forget to send in your questions about love and loss.
Good job, brain
I'm (still) currently reading: The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love, by Jeff Foster. I’m almost done with this collection of thoughtful essays, poems, and observations to dwell on. It’s repetitive, but in a calming and consistent way, and gives me lots to reflect on.
I’m currently inspired by: Exploring where you live. I went on a day trip to Bok Tower Gardens this weekend with some dear friends, and loved it. It’s a beautiful and restorative place.
I'm currently aiming to: Celebrate three types of love this week. Tonight, I’m going to a Galentine’s Day party. Tomorrow, my boyfriend and I are doing something nice for ourselves (self-love, FTW). And on Friday, the day after Valentine’s, we’ll spend a loving day together.
Here’s the full article on viewing life as a spiral staircase. It’s broken into “morning reading,” “noon reading,” and “evening reading,” which is a nice way to approach a long and thought-provoking essay.
If you’re looking for the purpose of your life, there’s a whole section of TED Talks to help.
When I’m in an especially antsy, life-questioning spot, a walk outdoors always helps. The Joy of Forest Bathing has lots of tips on how to make the most of your time in nature (and is just a really beautiful book to look at and display in your home).
For your sweet dumb brain
Just because we encounter the same habits on our spiral staircases doesn’t mean we can’t change them. Experiment with altering a habit today, and see what it feels like. Here’s Desai’s challenge: “This afternoon, instead of eating lunch in front of your computer or while working at your desk, pause for a moment. Break a small habit. See if perhaps that lets a bit of air in, as if you were opening a window and feeling the breeze. If you always eat alone at your desk, instead — if the weather is temperate — invite a colleague to join you on a park bench or in a nearby café. Think about how this change in routine affects your day.”