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‘Dad, What’s the Meaning of Life?’ PDF Print E-mail
Written by Rick Epstein   

Maybe for Father’s Day, as a special treat for her old man, my daughter Marie could ask me an easy question or two, the way she used to when she was 4. I never felt so wise and fatherly as when she was pitching them to me nice and slow, right across the plate.

“Daddy, can invisible people see each other?” she would ask. “No,” I’d reply, quick as a wink.


            “Daddy, do all animals and people die?” Yes.

            “What about people’s stuff, like houses and toys? Do they die, too?” No.

            “Do monkeys use bananas like money?” No.

            “Do parrots mean what they say?” Sometimes.

            “Why don’t we fall off the Earth?” Because of gravity; don’t worry about it.

            “What is the sun made of?” Fire.

            “What’s under Mickey Mouse’s skin?” Cartoon mouse meat.


A lot of it was mere orientation, and I was like a guy happily giving directions to someone new in town – not smarter, just here first.


If people only use 10 percent of their brains, Marie has always been operating about 12 percent of hers, and I’ve always done my best to give her honest, factual answers. Her younger siblings didn’t quiz me like that. Middle daughter Sally was born knowing most of what she wanted to know, and youngest daughter Wendy has been more likely to ask FOR things than ABOUT things.


Marie is 26 now and her questions can be more difficult. A couple of weeks ago she had a bad cold, worsened by asthma. Add in her current insecurity about her professional and personal life, and you have a young woman who might lie in her parents’ bed on a rainy afternoon and ask hopelessly, “Dad, what’s the meaning of life?”


A good question to ask someone who is contented and centered and has the world by the tail. But part of Marie’s problem is that her favorite role model (me) at age 59 has experienced some depletion in the Joie de Vivre Department and is as much fun as a barrel of monkeys – fretful and financially over-extended monkeys who no longer dream of taking their wives to Italy on the proceeds of their latest bestsellers.


Well, I managed to stammer out a few disorganized and sentimental thoughts for Marie. She was mournfully polite about it, and the next day, still miserable, she dragged herself off the city to meet some obligations.


A few days later I sent her an e-mail.


Dear Marie,

I’ve been thinking about your question.


Christians say that believing in Jesus is what it’s all about, and that heaven is the reward. Beyond that, meaning is unnecessary.


Jews seem to believe that enduring, behaving and remembering are all-important. But life’s meaning? That’s something the wise old men have been kidding each other about for millennia, answering questions with questions. But we want answers.


American Indians say that fitting gracefully into the nature’s cycle of life and death ought to be enough whether you are a person or a beaver.


Zen Buddhists are harder to understand. Like us, they seek enlightenment. To guide us there, they offer self-contradictory gags like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” If you ask a Zen master for the Meaning of Life, he might slap your face, but he won’t give you an answer that can be understood with a normal mind in fewer than 500 lifetimes.


So put aside the Meaning of Life for a minute and ask yourself about things that are Meaningful. Are there any? Lots! Here’s my own list:


Truth, kindness, usefulness, love, loyalty, courage, generosity and creativity.

Some qualities, like punctuality, cleanliness and thrift, seem to be mere matters of style, so consider them as electives.

If we each aspire toward our own constellation of virtues, any actions or achievements that spring from these values are meaningful.

So the meaning of YOUR life is up to you – and most of it is already spelled out inside your own head and heart.

Your loving father

* * *

Marie’s younger sister Sally, 24, might look to me for specific information about taxes or car repairs, but not for wisdom. Nevertheless, she drops by most Sunday afternoons to visit her ancestors. Just to see what she’d say, I mentioned that Marie and I have been seeking the Meaning of Life.


“You two are idiots,” she scoffed playfully. “Meaning of Life?” she said, presenting herself. “Yer lookin’ at ‘er!”

Marie isn’t going to like this.


Rick Epstein can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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