Meaning in life extends beyond and outside of ourselves and creates healthy affective transmissions that allow us to create bonds and positive relationships with others. These connections and effects live longer than we do…When you die, you still exist, and the meaning you have created in your life defines you past the time your heart stops beating.
In the weeks leading up to my masters thesis defense, I spent little, if any, time on Facebook. On the morning of my defense a close friend of mine texted me and asked if I was going to Eric’s funeral.
I responded, “Eric? Eric Christian?”
My friend called me immediately to tell me of Eric’s death.
I had no idea. I hadn’t been on Facebook in God knows how long. And that is the only way I would have heard about my friend’s untimely passing. I held back tears because I was in front of company and had an academically intimidating experience one hour away.
I felt alone because I was the only person in the room who knew him and who felt devastated by the news; but I knew I was not alone because Eric had friends and family all over the country who were feeling what I was.
This semester I am teaching two sections of a class entitled “Coming of Age Stories in Film and Prose.” I assigned Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why it Matters alongside other films I have shown in class. I have attempted to engage my students in intellectual dialogue regarding the importance of leading a meaningful life.
Some students are immediately interested in this. Some students are mildly interested. And as expected, without judgment, some students are not at all interested in understanding what a meaningful life is.
I don’t expect any student or person to ponder and fixate upon the perennial questions. As a teacher, I’ll do my best to press these students on the topic so we can learn how to think critically, understand values that extend beyond what we can gauge from Lil Wayne and something or other about the Kardashians, but at that point, I can only lead my students to the water.
In the course of teaching my students about the meaning in life and why it matters, as we can understand through Wolf’s text, the coming-of-age movies we have watched, or the class discussions we have had, I have kept one thing in mind:
I don’t know what the meaning of life is.
Of course not. And I would be skeptical of anyone who claimed to know what the meaning of life is.
As many of us know, the people who do claim to know this are not only full of shit, but want to fill our Solo cups with laced with poison so we can catch the next comet in our brand new Nikes. Or maybe they just want us to join their centuries-old religious institution.
Everyone has their way.
Knowing the meaning of life is not the most important concept in this conversation. What is most important is that we are thinking about it, questioning it, engaging with the idea.
Thinking about meaning allows us to better reconsider our life’s values and choices, relationships, occupational desires; it allows us to make future plans and projections based on rational criteria; and what the shit, lunch options.
In other words, by thinking about meaning in life, we live better, improved lives, even if we never figure out what the meaning of life is for ourselves or others. And that’s awesome.
My students and I have discussed much on what it means to live a meaningful life. In our discussions; we have mostly tried to understand how we can determine for ourselves what a meaningful life is; why it is important and necessary to do so; how we develop, mature, and evolve as individuals; but however, this approach does not always allow us to see the full picture.
Failing to see the full picture makes us feel like we are all alone.
Now I reach my ultimate point in consideration of my friend’s recent death.
What I have failed to consider in my class discussions is what the meaning in our own lives means for other people.
I may not care about my life in the moment but that does not mean that several other people don’t care.
[I am not at all implying Eric did not care about his life – let me be explicit about that; I have no idea what his thoughts were in the days leading to his death]
Again, just because you think other people don’t care about you does not mean they do not. Thankfully, I know that in the weeks leading to Eric’s death he knew people loved and appreciated him.
I have other friends who have died, or who have tried to kill themselves, and believed no one cared about them. I have felt this frequently throughout my own life as well. It’s easy to believe your life has no meaning and falling into that valley will drown you in the rainwater of your own tears. But all of our lives have meaning that will raise us to the crest of the waves, to the top of the mountains, so long as we can recognize it in ourselves and especially others.
I don’t know how Eric died, and while admittedly, it captures my interest, the how is not important in this discussion. What is important is the effect his death has had on the exponential amount of friends and family who have been impacted by his passing. I could not make his funeral (I found out about it on the day I was defending my masters thesis and the funeral was hours away), but I heard it was standing-room only.
Meaning in life extends beyond and outside of ourselves and creates healthy affective transmissions that allow us to create bonds and positive relationships with others. When a person dies, that meaning lives on; while some may the soul lives on beyond the body’s death, I am more appreciative of the fact that the meaning a person’s life can continue to affect us days, weeks, years, and decades after that death.
In this sense, we are never alone.
We all loved Eric. Once you got to know him, you had no other choice.
The last time I saw Eric I was driving down bumpy, bricked Oviedo Street after having just arrived in Saint Augustine. I saw him outside of a house with friends so I pulled into the driveway of the residence, got out of my car, and we spent a half hour catching up. When we concluded, we hugged goodbye.
Eric was happy. He was smiling. He was joking. He was improving his life and interested in how I was improving my life. Eric was being himself: a genuinely great person with a sense of humor, enough energy to caffeinate America, and a thirst for life that goes so often unnoticed by many, myself included.
Meaning in life is necessary for us individually, but it is not selfish. Meaning in life is not merely self-concern. It is not isolated to our egos. We affect others no matter how much our depression or other personal, psychological problems falsely adulterate our thinking.
Have you known someone who has died when you haven’t spoken to them in a year?
I have friends who have died from unknown causes, drug overdoses, suicide, and murder.
But this tally is irrelevant. The effects of their deaths are never forgotten: from momento mori, to remembering great times, to remembering the value of human life, these effects crawl inside of us. They either infect us or make us reconsider our own lives – usually both. It’s like when someone you know dies you live more meaningfully while dying quicker.
Absence produces presence, like when you invite a friend over for dinner and she does not arrive, her absence immediately produces her presence. You think about her. And so even if she has not arrived, neither of you are alone.
I have learned something upon my friend’s recent death:
No matter how many people you know who have died, the next death does not hurt any less. That life does not become any less meaningful than the previous. If you have known one hundred people who have died, the next person to die does not matter any less.
If anything, each friend’s or family member’s death makes you more fully grasp the importance and fragility of life. We are all connected to people who love us. Just as you love others and want their affection, attention, and respect; other people love you and want the same. And if you read this right now, you know you’re not alone.
While I mentioned before that “what meaning in life is for other people” it should not take a person like Eric to die for you or me to realize this. Most of us already know that. But Eric spent a lot of his final years bettering himself in multiple ways. I believe his determination encouraged many of us to follow his lead.
I never told him this, but the hard work he put into self-improvement in the last few years of his life inspired me. I was proud of him.
He was proud of his friends and family too.
So I conclude with this:
Live a meaningful life, whatever that means to you, and know that your life is meaningful to others. The meaning you live is greater than you and affects those around you. Your life, your presence, and the positivity you exude creates direct, healthy transmissions for all of the people you encounter. When you die, you still exist, and the meaning you have created in your life defines you past the time your heart stops beating.
Your life is meaningful, and it’s meaningful beyond you.
If you read this right now, you know you’re not alone.
RIP Eric Christian