a blog by J.M. Cottle
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The meaning of life is like a cereal bowl

A story

Once upon a time, I went to the dentist, and the dentist asked me, “What was your major in college?”

I told him, once he took his fingers out of my mouth, “Philosophy.”

“Oh,” he said with a smile, putting his fingers back in my mouth. “Do you know the meaning of life?”

Once he removed his fingers again, I said, “I’m still working on that one.”

The hygienist offered, “Know God, love God, trust God.”

The dentist said, “I agree with that.”

I don’t know why I said I didn’t know the meaning of life; I actually do. As much as I will ever say I know anything (I am a skeptic). I think I was just nervous about being asked philosophical questions after being outside the academic world for a couple of years, and also, the dentist kept putting his hands in my mouth, which makes discussion a bit awkward.

The Question

Would you like to know the meaning of life? You would? Of course you would — everyone asks me that when they find out what my major was. It’s what everyone thinks philosophers do all day. We sit around in cafes wearing berets and debating the meaning of life using unnecessarily big words.

Actually, that’s not far from the truth…

But don’t worry, my friend, I will answer your question. The meaning of life is: nothing. There is no meaning of life. Trick question.

You’re welcome!

No, no, come back, I’m sorry. Allow me to explain.

An answer

I am an existential nihilist (I know, big surprise, right?) and that means that I believe existence — life — has no inherent meaning. Sometimes I like to be clever when people ask me The Question and say, “Being made up of cells, growing, responding to simuli, using up energy, et cetera.” Yes, I do say “et cetera” in conversation. But people don’t really care about the meaning of the word “life”; what they want is the meaning of their own life. And that, if you ask me, is nothing.

If you don’t like that, good! Excellent! You can change it. All you have to do is make meaning. Note: I said make meaning, not find meaning. If you search for it, you will be searching forever.

An analogy might help here. I like analogies. Let’s say that I have a bowl. It’s just some bowl; it has no meaning to me aside from its definition, “a concave usually nearly hemispherical vessel.” Yup, it’s a bowl. But then my best friend whom I hardly ever see comes to visit me, and they eat their cereal out of this bowl, and while they’re eating their cereal I tell a funny joke and they laugh and milk sprays out of their nose and it’s gross/hilarious. Now, every time I see this bowl, I’ll remember that story and it will be My Best Friend’s Bowl. Now, it means something, because there are memories and emotions attached to it in my mind.

The meaning of life is like that. All meaning is like that. Meaning doesn’t exist anywhere, in life or in cereal bowls, until we create it, and we create it with memories and emotions.

My meaning

In college, I had an existential crisis, though I didn’t know it was called that until I started taking philosophy classes and was already on my way out of the crisis. I didn’t know what my life was for; I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I didn’t know why it mattered whether or not I got out of bed in the morning, so sometimes I didn’t.

Eventually, thanks to a bunch of existential philosophers, caring professors, good books, and hours and hours of thinking, I figured out that my life means something because I said so. No one was going to give me the right answer, or even a few pre-packaged options, so I made one up. Life isn’t multiple choice; it’s open-ended. Keep writing until the time is up.

If you’re curious, the answer I came up with is that my life is about two quests: the quest for happiness and the quest for truth. When I have to choose between happiness and truth, I choose truth, because facing the truth makes me happy, even when it’s an unpleasant truth (I am kind of perverse that way). As a skeptic I’m not sure I will ever reach the Real Truth or that it’s even possible to do so, but the quest is still a noble one.

And happiness, well, happiness is easy. Happiness is a friend and a cup of tea and a story to tell. Sunshine and strawberries and snow.

Your meaning

My life means something to me. What does your life mean to you? Have you come up with an overarching life goal? Have you decided whether or not you need one? Are you totally lost? Leave a comment and let me know. I am very curious.

9 Responses to The meaning of life is like a cereal bowl

  1. Hi J,

    Just met you after reading your comment on Niall’s blog and was intrigued by your goal as it is so similar to mine.
    Then I see that you’ve also come through to the other side of an existential crisis and you’re making life mean what you want it to, something that I am intensely curious about and also write about.
    So I’m thrilled to meet someone who is so similar in many ways. I’ll certainly be following you :)

    • Good to meet you, Mirella! The internet is a great place. I’ve gotten to know more people like me online than anywhere else. Just read your About page and saw that you were raised Catholic and became an atheist — we do indeed have many similarities.

      P.S. I just noticed that the header on your site changes. That is awesome.

  2. I’m so pleased I found your site! Thank you for all the sharing!
    It makes me so glad to keep finding each time more and more people around with such similar world views as mine.. I’m not talking about just this post specifically… I’ve been reading your blog randomically for a couple of hours now and… it’s just awesome!
    greetings from brazil ;)

  3. Hmm. When I was about 16 I came to the conclusion that life had no meaning or purpose. Unfortunately, I was also pretty depressed at that point in my life and took this discovery to mean that I should commit suicide, lest I continue a meaningless existence in which I was using up the valuable resources of my family (who were devout Catholics and completely lacking in understanding of my views). It took a few years after that before I realized it was -okay- that life had no inherent meaning. I’m currently undecided whether my personal life purpose should be maximum pleasure and happiness, or maximum academic and artistic achievement. They both seem equally hopeless right now, so I think some revision is in order.

  4. You’ve pretty much stated my conclusion in different words. To me, meaning has always been what words have, what people communicate with language, or gesture- but to say a life has meaning? No, that’s not what the word “meaning” means. That might only apply if an author uses a fictional character’s life as metaphor to communicate some meaning they want to get across. Perhaps you could substitute the word Purpose, and then it might make more sense, but that still implies some external Other who is using one’s life as a tool for something. I agree completely with you that if one wants to feel their life has value, it’s up to them to create it by striving to accomplish some goal that they value. Thanks for posting.

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