Lee Eisenberg’s The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything In Between is a wonderful set of reflections on the meaning of life — or what “the point” of life really is.
The ostensible thesis is that the meaning of life is all about the narrative you create for yourself:
Whether the theme is “Look how far I’ve come,” or “I want to leave the world better off than I found it,” or “I need to put my hidden talent to better use,” or “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” whatever the refrain, the narrative we create about ourselves amounts to a “personal myth,”
Throughout the book Eisenberg pulls from different studies, quotes from literature, and pop cliches to reflect on this timeless question. In the hands of a less capable writer, such a scattered approach would be deadly. Eisenberg, formerly editor of Esquire magazine, writes with aplomb.
Below are some of my favorite paragraphs from the book. I began to bold sentences below but then realized I was bolding all of them.
Julian Barnes, in his novel The Sense of an Ending: “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
Arthur Schopenhauer said, “To our amazement we suddenly exist, after having for countless millennia not existed; in a short while we will again not exist, also for countless millennia. That cannot be right, says the heart.”
Margaret Atwood, one of a number of writers invited by Wired magazine to compose a short story using only six words, turned out a classic, right up there with Madame Bovary: “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.”
We don’t need to know everything, the interviewer says, we’ll just focus on a few “key things.” Included among the key things are eight events the interviewer may refer to as “nuclear episodes”—“nuclear” in the sense that they’re central to your personal myth. Nuclear events include a positive and a negative childhood memory; a “wisdom event”; a vivid adult memory; a high point and a low point; a spiritual experience; and a turning point.
It asks that you imagine you have only twenty-four hours to live—so think hard about “Who you did not get to be” and “What you did not get to do.” You’d think, wouldn’t you, that there’d be a huge number of different answers to “Who did you not get to be?” and “What did you not get to do?” But there aren’t. Our answers fall into a handful of categories: Didn’t give enough back. Didn’t make peace with a loved one. Worked too hard. Wasn’t creative enough.
Bertrand Russell, philosopher/mathematician/activist/confirmed atheist, declared in his autobiography that the point [of life] was three things rolled together: love, because love relieves loneliness; knowledge, because knowledge enables us (in theory) to know how the universe works; empathy, because empathy allows us to hear the cries of pain of the oppressed in a world of poverty and pain.
Just as a baby needs food, Jung said, the human psyche cries out for meaning. Jung reckoned that fully a third of his patients suffered from nothing other than the perceived “senselessness and aimlessness” of their lives. And every patient over thirty-five, he said, borrowing from Hamlet, battled the sense that the world felt “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.”
Meaning isn’t a luxury. Meaning is crucial. We have a “will to meaning,” Viktor E. Frankl declared. To be human is to live in three dimensions—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. It’s this spiritual dimension that compels us to seek answers to why we exist.
There are numerous other avenues to symbolic immortality. Putting something into the world that wasn’t there before can act as a buffer against existential anxiety. Studies suggest that taking pride in, and being admired for, one’s own good works suppresses, at least to some extent, one’s anxieties about dying. Some say the drive for symbolic immortality is what art is all about, creativity in general: putting something into the world that wasn’t there before.
On why we’re afraid of death: There are, you’ll excuse the expression, three main buckets: We’re afraid that death will disrupt our personal goals. We’re afraid that death will do damage to our close relationships. We’re afraid of what happens in the hereafter. To break these down a notch further: We’re afraid of pain and suffering. We’re afraid of nothingness.
Before you die, the book advises, you should (1) ask for forgiveness; (2) extend forgiveness; (3) thank the people who’ve loved you; and (4) say you love them as well. (This presupposes that you really mean it.) The nondenominational minister said a “good death” is when a dying person can say, “I’m at peace with my loved ones,”
Robert Penn Warren, in an exquisite passage near the end of A Place to Come To: “As long as you have a parent alive, you are a child; and mystically, the child is protected, the parent is the umbrella against the rain of fate. But when the umbrella is folded and laid away, all is different, you watch the weather with a different and more cunning eye, your bones ache when the wind shifts, all joy acquires a tinge of irony (even the joy of love for a child, for you feel yourself as the umbrella or lightning rod, if you will, and know the frailty of such devices). Furthermore, with the death of your parent you begin to see in each death the weight of a ‘tale told’… and you begin to feel the fleeting impulse to verbally sum it up for yourself, or for some common acquaintance.”
Of all the last words I collected for possible use in this book, none rival the courage and eloquence of the two words Irish poet Seamus Heaney sent to his wife, Marie, shortly before he died in 2013. The words weren’t engraved in metal or inscribed in stone. They were transmitted in a text message, of all things. And they were in Latin: Nolle Timere—“Don’t be afraid.”
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”