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Illustration: Neil Webb

I may not know the point of life, but I know what makes it meaningful

Merely pursuing happiness doesn't cut it, says this writer.

By Trisha Elliott

We are born. We die. So what’s the point? To evolve? Procreate? Get to heaven? Life’s ultimate goal is anyone’s guess.

The Bible’s Creation mythologies tell the story of how God set the world in motion, but they don’t speculate as to why God felt it necessary to get the ball rolling in the first place. The book of Ecclesiastes posits that there’s a time in life for everything, but the writer admits he has no clue what the grand point is. “No one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” he writes. Then he shares what he knows for sure: “There is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil — this is the gift of God.”

I’m with Ecclesiastes on this point. It’s not helpful to get caught up in an eternally circular question. I think a better, more useful question is what makes life meaningful. No one lives a meaningful life just by taking up space on the planet. And merely pursuing happiness doesn’t cut it.

Lately, I’ve been meeting with a small group to study the bestseller Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. My book club members lapped it up, and many of the exercises were helpful, but I was skeptical of the premise. The book presumes that we can go away on our own and think enough about life to design one that has meaning. The structure and content are entirely up to us to create. I closed the book thinking that Christians are ahead of the curve. For us, the purpose of life is crystal clear: to be a disciple of Jesus. We might get angsty about how to do that, but we can agree that emulating his values gives life meaning.

This is something I learned early, as a tween practising French manicures during Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) meetings in our church basement. A church-based program for 11- to 17-year-olds, CGIT gave us a forum to make friends and talk about the latest fashion trends — and the trajectory of our lives. There, I had to stand up in my white-and-blue middy and recite a statement that has shaped my life ever since: “Under the leadership of Jesus, it is my purpose to cherish health, seek truth, know God, serve others and thus, with His help, become the girl God would have me be.” The language sounds stodgy today, but those simple words set the course for my life. While I’ve been at times more or less successful in living them out, I’ve never doubted the broad strokes.

For me, those guidelines were emboldened by the church’s liturgy. When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” for example, we acknowledge that our purpose is to be contributors to the creation of a world where love rules. We pronounce our collective purpose when we exclaim in the United Church creed that we are called “to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil.” These spiritual masterpieces orient our life path.

I might not know why I’m on the planet, but I do know what I’m here to do. In a world of uncertainty, there’s no grey here.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a writer and minister at Southminster United in Ottawa.

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