The meaning of life

Tonight I attended a TED-like talk hosted by Chicago Ideas Week, which is a series of lectures and labs across the city to inspire intellect, creativity and discussion. The title of this talk: “Meaning of Life: What’s It All About?”

No doubt, it’s one hell of a topic.  It’s loaded.  It’s debatable.  It can be esoteric and abstract.  It had the possibility of evolving into a lecture borrowing from the cheesiness of a celebrity-written self help book.  I braced myself for some of the this.

However, the opportunity to hear intellectual luminaries such as Mitch Albom and Deepak Chopra — two of the night’s six speakers — was too enticing to pass up.  I had faith it wouldn’t be too cheesy.  Especially since “Tuesdays with Morrie” is one of my all-time favorite books with some powerful, yet simple, lessons about life.  (Thank you, Mr. Bartholomew, for making us read that book as part of our Senior Honors English class in 1997.)  Plus, at $15, I considered this an low-cost investment to satisfy my starstruck curiosity.  I could always leave …

But I stayed the entire time.  As did everyone else in the audience at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.  The six speakers each brought something unique to the table, gifting the audience with a different lens through which to ponder life.

Not just how to exist in life, but how to live it.

Mitch Albom’s portion was the one that resonated most with me.  He borrowed vignettes from conversations with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, as his beloved teacher was dying of ALS disease.  These life-affirming conversations ultimately inspired Albom’s now-famous book.  Albom’s narrative approach helped, of course, especially in contrast to some of the other speakers who (as expected) drifted into the esoteric.

Albom said: “You never know the ripple you are causing with a little stone of kindness you share with someone else.”  He then motioned to us, the audience at the Oriental Theatre, saying that Morrie’s teachings and kindness live on, years after his passing on earth.  It was a great reminder to focus on giving while alive — that your fingerprint on the hearts and minds of people can linger long after you leave them.  So often I focus on the receiving and the taking.  “What will benefit me?”  I need to shift this awareness to others more often, and leave positive traces of myself with those around me.

Albom also applauded the fact that we don’t live forever, as this should force us to make each moment precious.  What a wonderful way to view our mortality.  Don’t fear or worry about the time we don’t have; instead, learn how to make the time we do have count.  So true, just not always so easy to put into practice.

Deepak Chopra shared with stage with an insanely brilliant neuroscientist named Rudy Tanzi.  (He’s working on a cure for Alzheimer’s.)  It was an interesting dynamic of Eastern philosophy and Western science.  These guys clearly get along, even though they approach life from slightly different angles — one is a renowned spiritual guide, the other is a world-famous scientist.  (Chopra made funny, self-deprecating comments about himself at times — referring to himself as a “flake” and “witch doctor.”)  For their differences in vocation, however, they complemented each other beautifully.

While much of their focus revolved around individual perception and the brain, including the scientific benefits of sleep and meditation for a healthy mind and body, I really enjoyed something Chopra said at the beginning of his talk: “We are luminous, stardust human beings.”  As a stand-alone phrase, it sounds “flake-like” without more context.  This line came after Chopra referenced our origins to the Big Bang — that every atom in our body has a connection to that event that created the stars.  And as a result, we, too, are a part of the stars.  It’s mind-blowing to consider humanity’s origins going that far back — but it’s even more profound to think that we have such an intimate connection with stars that twinkle in the sky, billions of light years away.

Chopra’s closing line was also quite poetic, and likely found in one of his 60-plus books.  “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience,” he said. “We are spiritual beings have a human experience.”

In sum, here are the three themes I take away from this inspiring talk and plan to put into practice with increased awareness:

  • Give.
  • Love.
  • Let go.

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