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The End (For Now)

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The End (For Now)

Since Jan. 1, 2015, I’ve been interviewing one person each day about the meaning of life. Mostly total strangers. The Meaning of Life Project is my way of sharing what I've learned.

This month closes out my first year of asking strangers about the meaning of life. For 12 months I've interviewed one person each day, documenting their answers to life's big questions. Those answers have transformed my worldview, but looking back, it's not just the answers that have broadened my horizons; it's the simple practice of interviewing people I wouldn't otherwise have made a meaningful connection with.

I recently read an article, inspired by a young teacher’s passing, that resonates with me after a year of new connections and discovered empathy. Written by Donna Vickroy, it perfectly captures the bonding effect I've felt from these casual yet purpose-filled interviews:

"Ismail said he likes the challenge of getting a person to trust him enough to talk. Not only is there usually a good story there, the search for a common talking point and finally finding one helps interviewer and interviewee form a bond.

Jamie Price said the experience has changed her. "I've learned how to be more open. Now I'm more able to put myself in other people's shoes because we do a lot in this class that enables you to see things from other perspectives. I've definitely grown through this."

Even outside of class, she said conversations in general have become richer and more meaningful. "They flow more naturally. They're not as awkward. We're not just talking about the weather. We talk about real issues. I don't hold back anymore."

That last sentence brings me to the big lesson I've learned this year: to ask the people you speak to about things that actually matter. If you have only a moment, don’t waste it on the weather. Find out what the person you are speaking with yearns for... what they think about life and death, what they want to share with the world. Not everyone is equally wise or witty, but simply allowing the connection is a gift that I am forever changed by. Which brings me to the end of this project, and what my interviewees have taught me.

Love matters. Connections matter. Material things don’t (one notable exception being where material access to the most basic needs is lacking, preventing us from providing safety and security for ourselves and those we love). Maslow’s pyramid is real; in war and other tragic circumstances where our basic needs are not fulfilled, our "meaning of life" focus becomes very narrow or nonexistent. But material items, attained to convey status, do not matter; there isn't a single person I interviewed who mentioned acquisition or possession of any tangible item as a reason for being.

We are incredibly communal creatures and we are largely defined by our relation to one another and the world around us. We recognize the imprint of another’s life in the way it changes our own, for better or worse. Throughout my interviews, I was constantly struck by similarities between my interviewees' answers and the entries we see in Legacy.com Guest Books, where people remember those they deeply care for even after they're gone. There are thousands of such entries I could share, but the two below truly capture the themes we see each day at Legacy, and which I've heard all year in my interviews.

 A son writes to his Mom: 

"You are with me every day, how could I ever forget such a beautiful, kind, and peaceful person. I appreciate your gentleness and allowing me to grow up to be a loving person.

You taught me so much about kindness, quiet beauty of life, and appreciating every moment. You are forever in my heart."

That ongoing presence we feel in our lives, even after someone is gone, is not limited to close relatives. Teachers, co-workers, casual friends and neighbors can all make indelible contributions to the shape of our lives, long after we've lost their physical being.

The second entry I want to share echoes this truth in an incredibly simple way:

 “I am a better man for knowing Frank.”

 Thank you to connections far and wide – and those yet to come – for making me a better human, and for allowing me to appreciate and share your wisdom.

- With deepest gratitude, Kim Evenson

Female, 30

"Have as many experiences as possible. Invest in the relationships that invest in you."

Female, 59

"Love, respect and stay close to family. Respect the clan. Respect your role in the clan. Steer clear of heroin, meth and other horrible drugs. Play everyday. Not video games, outside."

Female, 43 

"Don’t stay in any situation that you second guess; move on. If you second guess, it’s probably not the place you should be."

Male, 65

"Set your sights high and follow your dreams. You've got to do what you think the right thing is to do.... Don't second guess yourself. Deal with it."

Female, 35

"Don't listen to what you should do. Even [if something's] scary it's always the best experience, don't let the world tell you otherwise. Discomfort propels you to where you should be next. Be open to what the universe brings you. Trust yourself. Know that it is going to be okay. Setbacks are learning."

Male, 13

"Your parents went out of their way to put you in this world. Don't take it for granted.

Don't do drugs. Follow your dreams. Don't have any regrets. Die doing what you love."

Male, 45

"Respect your parents. And remember there are two parents pushing your stroller."

Male, 50

"Don't sweat the small stuff. Jump even if you don't know where you are going to land. Something good can come of it. Or something bad, but always a lesson."

Male, 60

"Observe. The rules of the world are immutable – and they apply to everyone. The longer it takes to figure that out, the less happy and successful you will be.

I'm not overtly religious, but I think this (life) is a test. The reason we are here and do what we do is because, I believe, there is another level. Your position in the next life depends on your legacy. The more love you leave behind, the better off you're going to be."

Male, 49

"Open your eyes, look deep and see how the world evolves. Not everything is what it looks like. What makes you happy may not make the next guy happy."

Male, 26

"[The meaning of life is] to live life without bothering people and to be something. Don't waste life sitting around. Do something. Be something."

Male, 73

"Live life to the fullest. Always say "yes" when opportunity comes your way. Always drink the best wines and burn all the candles. Both [myself and my wife] are widows. We know you need to live it now... if someone brings us fine wine, we open it then. Go right home and light the candles. Burn it all the way down to the wick. Say yes."

Male, 47

"Always remember to live a life of gratitude. Always. Remember to tell those you care about you love them, and never go to bed angry. Pursue passion, not a paycheck. Richard Branson said if someone offers you a great opportunity, say yes and figure out how to do it later.

The meaning of life is living life to the fullest and leaving the world a better place."

Male, 63

"If you care for your family like a good gardener, everything will be good. Teach while playing. Don't spend much money. Live in a house that belongs to you. Take it easy.

Life means pressure to me. When baby is born, the outside pressure is too much. You have to become happy with that pressure. Everything in the world is from experience." 

Male, 37

"Being angry is not good. Being upset is not good, either. If you want to change your life you have to be positive. 

I believe in God. this life is a gift to all of us. It doesn't matter what religion, color, life is a gift even when it is not what we expect. The meaning of life is just not doing bad things. Enjoy. Do good."

Female, 28

"Enjoy being... Enjoy every minute of it. Enjoy the journey. Don't feel like you have to rush to get to the next thing. Wherever your life takes you, don't rush it. I think the meaning of life is to enjoy your family, your friends... your chosen family. To have made an impact, to have made a difference for the people around you. Make a path for others to follow. Know that you helped someone breathe easier."

Male, 35

"Enjoy the mistakes and the right choices. You have to enjoy both. They make you what you are. We're here for a reason... I'm here to enjoy life and be happy. I have daughters, family, friends and a job. I don't need many things to be happy. I don't need much to be happy."

Male, 38

"Don't grow up too fast."

Male, 23

"God wanted us here."

Male, 47

"Be observant and try to understand all perspectives."