What is the meaning of life?
Are we here for a purpose?
If so, what is it? If not, why go on?
Greg Epstein explores these questions and many others in his 2005 book Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe.
In Chapter 3, “Why Be Good Without a God?” he discusses the concept of dignity.
In his discussion Epstein acknowledges his friend and teacher Sherwin Wine, and explains how his teacher defined this term, refining his definition over the course of many years.
But Epstein also acknowledges that “Wine didn’t invent this concept of a meaning to life beyond God,” and that others have known this concept by the name humanity, or “being fully human.”
Epstein makes the case that, by whatever name it is known, this requires more than mere self-actualization. It requires community:
We don’t have everything we need for a good life inside ourselves alone. If we did, we could all go off into separate little rooms and just enjoy.
He introduces the concept of meaning as another crucial part of the equation, citing the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Rabbi Hillel’s famous words, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Then Epstein gets to the heart of his argument:
All of us know what it feels like to realize “I am a person.” But it takes a little more awareness to realize, “You are also a person.” And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.
In my spare time I volunteer with a local community theatre group.
The other night I heard a 77-year-old man from the chorus talking with the choreographer from our show.
He was talking about how he had been struggling with the choreography in this one number for weeks, but that he finally got it right today.
When I heard him say this, I smiled to myself and said:
That’s why I do this.
Maybe that man was a little bit more of a person because he worked hard and got that choreography right.
And maybe I was a little bit more of a person to whatever extent I was able to help him.
And maybe that is what this word means.