Summary: The Meaning of Life By The School of Life
Summary: The Meaning of Life By The School of Life

Summary: The Meaning of Life By The School of Life


One way to get a sense of why love should so often be considered close to the meaning of life is to look at the challenges of loneliness. Frequently, we leave the topic of loneliness unmentioned: those without anyone to hold feel shame; those with someone might feel (a background degree of) guilt. But the pains of loneliness are an unembarrassing and universal possibility. We shouldn’t feel lonely about being lonely.

Unwittingly, loneliness gives us the most eloquent insights into why love matters so much. There are few greater experts on the importance of love than those who are bereft of anyone to love. It is hard to know quite what all the fuss around love might be about until and unless one has, somewhere along the way, spent some bitter, unwanted passages in one’s own company. When we are alone, people may try to show us kindness; there may be invitations and touching gestures, but it will be hard to escape the lingering sense of the conditionality of the interest and care on offer.



Our family members are probably the only people in the world who ever deeply understand key parts of us. Perhaps we don’t always get on better with them than with other people. They might not know the details of our current friendships or the precise state of our finances. But they have a knowledge of the underlying atmosphere of our lives that others will almost certainly lack.

When we make new acquaintances in adult life, we are necessarily meeting relatively late on in our respective developments. We might learn the broad outline of their childhood, but we won’t know what the holiday caravan or the beach house were really like; we won’t understand the details of the jokes, the smells, the textures of the carpets or the favourite foods, or the finer-grained aspects of the emotions in circulation.

With family members, the knowledge tends to be the other way round. They might not know too much about our present and they weren’t necessarily ideally wise or intelligent witnesses, but they were there – which gives them a definitive edge in grasping a great share of who we might be. Relationships in adult life are often complicated by a lack of intimate knowledge of the past. If we had been the brother or sister of the loud, domineering figure we meet for the first time over dinner, we would have understood that they were still, at root, trying to be heard by their inattentive mother. As a result, we would know the perfect response (‘I’m listening now’) that would instantly have calmed them down. If we had shared a bath with the tough, exacting chief financial officer at work when we were three, we would know that his highly rigorous, inquisitorial approach (which is so off-putting) was an attempt to stave off the chaos that surrounded him at home after his parents’ messy divorce. The full facts would make us much more ready to be patient and generous.



We are taught by economics to think of ourselves as, for the most part, selfish creatures. It can seem as if what we primarily want from work is money. What is far more striking is the extent to which we require work to be – as we put it – ‘meaningful’. A job can pay well and offer immense prestige, but, unless it is meaningful, it may eventually stifle us and crush our spirits.

What do we mean by ‘meaningful’ work? It is work that helps others; that has a role to play in making strangers happy. For all that we think of ourselves in darkly egoistic terms, we long for our labours either to reduce the suffering or to increase the pleasure of an audience. We crave a sense that we have left a little corner of the world in slightly better shape as a result of our intelligence and strength. Some jobs fit this requirement with ease; the nurse and the cardiac surgeon are in no doubt as to the meaningful impact of their tasks. But there are less dramatic yet equally soul-warming forms of meaning to be found in a range of less obvious jobs: in sanding someone’s floor; in making efficient toothpaste dispensers; in clearing up the accounts; in delivering letters; in teaching someone backhand.

For most of our lives, we are helpless to change circumstances for the better. We are at the mercy of vast impersonal forces over which we have no say. We cannot change the outcome of an election; we cannot prevent a friend making an unfortunate marriage; we cannot resolve the tensions of global politics. But at its best, work pushes against this. In a limited arena, we have agency. We can ensure that someone receives a package on time, understands calculus, eats a well-grilled chicken or sleeps in crisply ironed bedlinen. We can trace a connection between the things we have to do in the coming hours and an eventual modest but real contribution to the improvement of humankind.



Friendship should be an important centre of meaning, and yet it is also a routinely disappointing reality. The key to the problem of friendship is found in an odd-sounding place: we lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship should really be for.

The problem is that we are uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose to begin with, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical of motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship. In fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus on what we should be doing with every person in our lives. Indeed, sometimes, we might helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be around someone at all. There is a range of goals we could be pursuing with the people we know. Grasping what the opportunities are is central to building a meaningful social existence.

A true friend notices a lot about us, and has a strong enough hold on our affection and trust to raise issues in a way that we can take them on board. If we let them, they can frame a point not as a devastating criticism but as a sympathetic and generous bit of encouragement to our own better nature. They help us to like ourselves and then to tolerate recognising some less than perfect things about who we are. They take our distress or excitement or anger seriously, but ask gentle and probing questions that help us understand our own initially vague first thoughts and feelings. They listen carefully, and they make it clear that they are on our side. They help us stick with a tricky point and go into more detail; they make connections to something we said earlier; they note our facial expression or tone of voice; they don’t jump to fill a pause but wait for us to say more. They act as a judicious, kindly mirror that helps us to know and befriend our own deeper selves.



One of the most consoling aspects of natural phenomena – whether a dog, a sheep, a tree or a valley – is that their meanings have nothing to do with our own perilous and tortured priorities. They are redemptively unconcerned with everything we are and want. They implicitly mock our self-importance and absorption and so return us to a fairer, more modest, sense of our role on the planet.

A sheep knows nothing about our feelings of jealousy; it has no interest in our humiliation and bitterness around a colleague; it has never emailed. On a walk in the hills, it simply ambles towards the path we’re on and looks curiously at us, then takes a lazy mouthful of grass, chewing from the side of its mouth as though it were gum. One of its companions approaches and sits next to it, wool to wool, and for a second, they exchange what appears to be a knowing, mildly amused glance.

Beyond the sheep are a couple of oak trees. They are of especially noble bearing. They gather their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grow in small, orderly steps, producing rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle. It doesn’t matter what the election results are, or what happens to the stock market or in the final exams. The same things would have been going on when Napoleon was leading his armies across Europe or when the first nomads made their way towards the Appalachian hills.

Our encounter with nature calms us because none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes has any relevance to it. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the dog, the sheep, the trees, the clouds or the stars; they are important representatives of a different perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.