The Meaning of Life

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of life. It’s the kind of monumental question I used to worry like a terrier with a toy when I was young and that I don’t have time for now that I’m older. But occasionally the question arises: Do we make meaning out of a human need for order and control, or is there an underlying Force working things out in Its own way? I‘ve experienced moments (so many!) when it seems that something–spirit guides, angels, some invisible energy–must be crimping Time deliberately to formulate coincidences.

I remember once being invited to have lunch in Manhattan on the same day that I had agreed to take the children to the beach. Of course I refused the lunch and went on making sandwiches for our picnic, when my anxiety grew so intense I thought I would be sick. I cancelled the beach (for myself but not the kids) and accepted the unimportant lunch. It made no sense: we could have had lunch any day! But entering the busy restaurant a few hours later, I saw a man whom I had not seen in twenty years and with whom I had unfinished business. He was in New York from the Midwest for only that one day. We exchanged phone numbers and later had a chance to heal old wounds. What adjustments to Time and Space are needed to bring two people together unexpectedly from across the country?And it’s not always with people who are living still.

Once I was walking down the street, wishing with all my heart that I could talk to my dead father, I missed him so much. I wondered what he would think of my divorce, my books, his granddaughters, all the events that had happened since he died. I wondered if he’d loved me, or whether he’d been preoccupied with his own energetic, creative work. At home I found a letter from my sister in France, enclosing a letter that my father had written to her thirty years earlier expressing his concern and caring for me, every sentence an indication of his love. I burst into tears.

Now I’ve written many books; and now I’m older and wonder sometimes what is the most important thing I’d like to tell my own grandchildren. What can I pass on to others that I’ve learnt: joyful acceptance, gratitude, laughter, resilience, how to look for the good in every one and in every happening. . . . for life is good and it will bring you what is best. There’s more than we imagine going on. I think of Steve Jobs rising up on his deathbed and saying, “Wow! Oh Wow!” before he fell back dead. Or the Japanese friend who told me of a Buddhist priest he knew, whose family gathered at his deathbed, waiting to hear his last words—hoping for the meaning of life. The old man opened his eyes, and broke out laughing, peals of laughter, ringing out, before he, like Mr. Jobs, collapsed and died.

These days I can reduce my thinking to one paragraph that I wrote in A BOOK OF ANGELS. I was telling about the mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, who saw angels all the time, and this is probably the most important sentence in that book, and probably the one thing I’d like to pass on to my little ones if it could only be one.“Swedenborg’s angels stayed with him always, whispering and singing to him. He writes of their communicating spiritually—by thoughts flashing into his mind, and in one of these instructions he learned that angels look on all events as proceeding from God—not as men or evil spirits do, who want everything to come out their way, and when it doesn’t give way to doubt or even deny the existence of God, but rather in an outpouring of faith. His angels repeated again and again that we poor beings should not worry about the future but only trust to providence. For Providence will being all things that we desire—not necessarily while we desire them, ‘but yet if it be for their good, they obtain them afterwards, when not thinking of them.’“ It’s true.

Most people don’t think of the things that happen to them as gifts, but everything is—all of it—the light shining through the brilliant yellow of a maple tree, the unexpected save-your-ass check that suddenly arrives, the loved one who left you, the disaster that unfolds a blessing. . . . What we thought desirable has such thorns we can hardly grasp it; while what we thought terrible turns out to wear a crown. Everything is a miracle. And we are being guided through this miraculous journey of our lives, shown beauty and terror, panic, joy, laughter, music, sorrow, foolishness, anger, horror, forgiveness: It is so good. In the midst of anguish, Love bursts forth like green shoots in springtime. Goethe, the German writer, said it best:

The Gods the Eternal Ones, /Give all things to their Darlings, /All joys, all sorrows. /To their darlings, Everything.

Oh, I have so much I’d like to tell my little ones, and yet in the face of life I fall silent, overcome by beauty, wisdom, foolishness, love, struggles, despair and mistakes, the magnificence of being given first and foremost this gift of life. And then the gift of passing on, of death.

10 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life

  1. Reblogged this on zen crunch and commented:
    I first discovered Sophy Burnham when I read her book, The Art of Intuition. Her writing so often reminds me of the mysterious, miraculous, invisible weave that unites our ordinary, extraordinary lives.

  2. What a timely message, Sophy. A reminder to give thanks and have hope — wish that everyone out there, young and old, who’s struggling with misfortune and despair, could hear your words this morning.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful thoughts Sophy.

    There is so much stirring in me this past few days and I really wanted to read a book. I pass by the bookstore last Sunday and because I left the list of Authors I wanted I just have to pick something that would present to me, I pick The Art of Intuition.

    I connect. I fit in the left handed ambidextrous (not mentioned breech baby) profile you are saying. Listening and following my whispers from God (intuition) everyday has made my life meaningful. Everyday has it’s own surprises! It warms the heart, makes your lips break into a smile sometimes pushing tears from the eyes that gently cleanse your soul. You make peace with the daily realities of life, you let go of anger and fear, you refuse to label what transpire as good or bad and simply find in your heart to understand. You become a person capable of great love.

    Thank you for the inspiration. I know I’m not alone.

    • Dear Pinkai, I am so pleased to hear from you. Are you in the Philippines? You make me smile. YES! YES! I want to say.
      Listening is so important, and as you say, always brings surprises. Like this message from you, at a moment when I was in the claws of the Pteradactyl of Doubt (about my latest novel, of course). I needed your message to remind me to let go of anger, fear, and all the labels of good or bad, etc.
      Remember just to LOVE
      I hope you will pass my blog message and website on to your friends. I’ve written 13 books and plays and short stories. It means so much to hear from you. My website is

      I wish you Blessings, Beauty and Bounty. Sophy

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