There are a few man-made things that stand as a positive testament to what humans are capable of creating. The pyramids and the great wall of China are some of the larger monuments you will see, and, depending on your religious inclinations, you may look to churches and cathedrals as being among the more impressive, and I always thought medieval Europe was responsible for building the biggest, and most spectacular cathedrals. But I was surprised to learn, recently, that the largest cathedral in the world is here in America.
Cathedrals are Really Big Churches
In the dark ages, building a cathedral took a great deal of dedication. The construction technology was not like we have today. A six horse power engine meant you had attached six horses to a cart. But that little six horse power engine could drag a ton of stone from the quarry in Italy across the alps to a town in France.
Because humans were the most plentiful resource for building anything, but not the fastest, the construction of anything on a monumental scale took a lot of people a lot of time. It took several lifetimes to create some cathedrals, so that a craftsman might be born on site, raised to carve stone, or construct the structure, or work on the interior elements. They might spend the rest of their life working on just one aspect of the cathedral, die, and be buried there on the grounds, without having seen the final results of their lifetime of labor.
It Probably Wasn’t a Walk in the Park
Granted, making something big and awesome with primitive technology may use up the human capital at an alarming rate, and indiscriminately. I’m certainly not saying that history’s great achievements were worthy of the lives that may have died in vain in the effort.
If watching The Ten Commandments every Passover with my family taught me anything about the Hebrews, it’s that being enslaved to the Egyptians wasn’t a walk in the park. Just as Yul Brunner could condemn to death anyone not making bricks fast enough with a swish of his horse-tailed crop, I’m sure plenty of lives were lost prematurely hauling seventeen ton blocks of limestone into place.
Similarly, I suspect there were more Chinese laborers lost building the Great Wall as there were Chinese labors lost building railroads, digging mines, and constructing dams in the American West. And let us not forget whichever people it was that dug the Panama Canal (seriously, I can’t remember if it was Chinese imports or natives from the region).
All’s Well That Ends Well, Even in Death
That is not to say that their life was squandered. They were part of a family, and part of a larger movement with a seemingly divine inspiration. If they were lucky enough to enjoy the trade and craft into which they were born, they may have spent the better part of their life doing something they loved. The filth, disease, hunger, and lack of dental care aside, they lived a relatively good life.
I mentioned that the world’s largest cathedral is in America, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It’s construction began in the 1870s. Given the abilities of American industry back then, you might think it was a quick build, but that Cathedral has been under construction for more than 100 years. It’s truly a modern version of an medieval cathedral, because many of the people that worked on it did not live to see its completion.
They were part of a process, and they contributed to a much larger meaning than just what they understood in their own lifetime.
So it is with us in our own lives.
We Define the Meaning of Our Life
You may strive at many things — some easy, others difficult — and may wonder what the striving is all about. There are no easy answers. People will offer answers, but not to the questions you are asking.
We have to decide for ourselves what is the meaning of our life.
That is a great responsibility, and the weight of the answer to that question may be too much for us to answer. But to decide to not define the meaning of our own life is to risk falling into an abyss from which we can not escape. We must also avoid adopting a meaning from someone else without truly considering if such a meaning suits our values, beliefs, and morality.
Great. Now What?
Having chosen a meaning, and having come to an understanding of our own values, beliefs, and morality, we may be able to find a larger purpose to serve. One that can not be so simply achieved that we solve the problem and complete the task, like watching a marathon session of Breaking Bad over a long weekend.
We can build our own cathedral.
No cathedral was built in a day. You might join a group, and dedicate part of your life to feeding the hungry, slowing down global warming, or providing clean water to those in thirst.
You might focus on your own family, and pass along the traditions of your ancestors to your children and grandchildren.
Pass It On
I hate the YMCA billboards that mention a vague concept and then direct us all to “pass it on.” They are trying to associate their own organization with the do-gooder notions proclaimed. It’s pretentious and preachy, as if they are saying, “we do this all the time, and you should too.”
The billboards are correct in that we should, in fact, pass such good intention on in life. It’s still annoying to be told.
So Do Whatever the Hell You Want To Do
I am suggesting to you that you get to choose. You can choose to work on some pretentious sounding, but vague conceit. Or you can be a self-serving narcissist. Or you can find a passion in which you deeply believe, and bring joy and meaning to your life as you pursue that passion.
I am not preaching because I have struggled with finding such meaning all my life. I really don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet.
This is just what I think I know.
It is all well and good to develop our own skills and work on our own piece of the puzzle. In fact, it is imperative that you work on your craft and livelihood with all the passion you can muster, because it is the combined efforts of thousands of people, generation after generation, that creates a monumental human institution.
The cathedrals you build may not be completed in the course of your life; but if you choose projects based on the common needs of humans, you can be reasonably confident that others will continue the work, and the world will be a better place because of your efforts.
And I think I know that making such choices will help you define the meaning of your life.