In our busy lives packed with various tasks and schedules, have we ever paused to ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?”
Who am I? Why am I born into this world? Who created me? Am I merely a creature of chance or a product of a supreme being who is a designer par excellence? Am I born to accomplish a special purpose that God has set for my life? Or am I just like an animal born with needs and appetites that have to be met?
What is this meaningless cycle of life that most will have to go through? Is life meant to be something like this: Go to school, work hard, enter university, work hard, get a degree, secure a good job, buy a house and a car, get married, have children, then grandchildren, get to play with them and then watch TV on our rocking chair the rest of our lives till we die?
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, believes that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. This hierarchy of needs is depicted as different levels within a pyramid: physiological, safety, love and sense of belonging, esteem and self-actualization. When one need is fulfilled, a person seeks to fulfill the next one. For example, once our physiological needs are being met, we shift upwards towards fulfilling our need for safety.
People are motivated by different goals in life. Some live for fame or power. Others get enamoured with money or pleasure. For some, a spin in a Ferrari gives a sense of accomplishment that they have arrived. Others set even higher goals; they can only be happy when they get to cruise on their own luxury yacht.
However, some are driven by noble objectives such as helping the poor, fighting human trafficking or preserving the environment so that they will be remembered long after they are gone. These humanitarian goals give them a sense of fulfillment in life.
But will all these things really satisfy man’s deepest longings? Blaise Pascal, a physicist and philosopher says: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
We may have a string of impressive accomplishments and accumulated property but, one day, we will have to leave all these things behind. We will all age and finally die.
In order to appreciate the futility of worldly success, let us consider the last wishes of Alexander the Great. On his death bed, he summoned his generals and shared his three ultimate wishes:
1. The best doctors should carry his coffin.
2. The wealth he has accumulated (money, gold, precious stones) should be scattered along the procession to the cemetery.
3. His hands should be let loose so they hang outside the coffin for all to see.
Surprised by his unusual request, his generals asked Alexander to explain. Here is what the great man had to say:
1. I want the best doctors to carry my coffin to demonstrate that, in the face of death, even the best doctors in the world have no power to heal.
2. I want the road to be covered with my treasures so that all can see that the material wealth we acquire stays behind when we die.
3. I want my hands to be exposed so that people will understand that we come into this world empty-handed and we leave this world in a similar state. We cannot take any material wealth with us to the grave.
When we are young, we tend to think we are immortal. We put away depressing thoughts about growing old and dying. But we have to face reality. Life is unpredictable and short. The Chinese have this saying that coffins come in various sizes: Some are so small they are meant to fit infants while others are full size to fit grown-up adults.
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that one day we will definitely grow old and pass away:
Keep your Creator in mind while you are young! In years to come, you will be burdened down with troubles and say, “I don’t enjoy life anymore.”
Someday the light of the sun
and the moon and the stars
will all seem dim to you.
Rain clouds will remain
over your head.
Your body will grow feeble,
your teeth will decay,
and your eyesight fail.
The noisy grinding of grain
will be shut out
by your deaf ears,
but even the song of a bird
will keep you awake.
You will be afraid
to climb up a hill
or walk down a road.
Your hair will turn as white
as almond blossoms.
You will feel lifeless
and drag along
like an old grasshopper.
We each go to our eternal home,
and the streets are filled
with those who mourn.
The silver cord snaps,
the golden bowl breaks;
the water pitcher is smashed,
and the pulley at the well
So our bodies return
to the earth,
and the life-giving breath
returns to God.
Nothing makes sense.
I have seen it all—
nothing makes sense.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that life on earth is all in vain if we do not have a higher purpose. Its writer, King Solomon, had everything a man could possibly ask but he still felt empty inside. He built beautiful gardens and palaces and had great herds and flocks. He had many singers, slaves and concubines to cheer him up. He had unimaginable wisdom, pleasures and riches but he still felt that everything is in vain. What does man gain by all his toil, riches and pleasures on earth? Like animals, he will have to die one day.
For a man who seemingly had everything in life, what was Solomon’s conclusion about life? Here is his answer: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
WHO AM I?
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Even without post-traumatic amnesia, this is a most significant question that we need to pose to ourselves.
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