Few things speak to the meaning we find in life like the symbolism behind Veterans Day. Sacrifice to preserve life for others stands in shocking contrast to the calculated murder of a nine-year old boy1 and the killing of an aspiring model in Chicago.2 It is hard to reconcile with the shooting of a Fox Lake, Illinois police officer that turned into a story about suicide and scandal after he was mistakenly made a hero by the media and politicians.3,4 We just witnessed stabbings at a university in California. 224 deaths on a Russian airliner were likely caused by a bomb.
Over the course of two short weeks these events and others impacted our views on the meaning in life that other generations sought to preserve. Nothing threatens that meaning like evidence of how uncertain and capricious life can be in the face of things people choose to do that we can’t control.
Is meaning in life a political invention?
Politics, not people, is usually behind how a nation shows the world it values life. This can be a good thing. It stood behind our involvement in two world wars and in Viet Nam, Korea, and Iraq.
People, not politics are the reason we continue to value and respect life no matter what events we have to make sense of. We share our view that life has innate value with most cultures. Even the most cynical among us can’t deny that valuing life is necessary for a people to survive. The world came together to battle the Ebola epidemic in Africa. We pull together in the aftermath of natural disasters and for better or worse, try to find ways to shepherd the fallout from politically-sanctioned catastrophes like the war in Syria.
How politics respects life
When politics intervenes, it is too often for its own self-interested purposes. An internet search for “respect life” shows how much the politics of religion moderates our views on life in America. Abortion tops the list. This issue is so politically charged that we have tricked ourselves into believing that it has to do with respecting the value of life when it has a lot more to do with the bombast, propaganda, and legal finagling that will decide who comes out on top.
Internationally, we have resorted to appealing to the world instead of leading when we decide we have watched enough killing from afar. It wasn’t always that way. The world looked to us for leadership and moral guidance in World War II. We will remember the heroes who fought because of that leadership on Wednesday. Does the mindset behind the sacrifices of those who didn’t make it home still exist? Do we see it in our homeland?
War at home questions life’s value
The problems we have with the war here at home don’t seem to have a solution. America’s special brand of urban terrorism is easy to write off to political arguments over gun control and social spending, but make no mistake. Violence in America is war, it is terrorism, and it changes how we look at life. The more we hear about it, the more difficult it is to come up with a meaning for life that makes sense, especially when our society is faced with the responsibility for a parade of innocent victims in urban communities.
How can we make sense of Americans killing Americans when so many laid down their lives to protect the folks back home?
How can we still respect life in the face of this?
Children aren’t born wanting to kill, which makes it difficult to argue that respect for life has to be taught. Meaning in life is another matter. It grows with us. It can be devalued and even taken away by acts that reinforce how little life can matter, like the deaths of children caught in gang crossfire. When this kind of atrocity happens often enough, we come to accept it as an unavoidable part of life.
It doesn’t have to be.
Meaning in life no matter what
There are a few things that validate meaning in life no matter where you live.
Respect for life crosses national boundaries, even though some governments do their best to degrade it. There are few instances where making the value of life a political argument is an improvement.
Most if not all religions respect life, though they show that respect differently at different times. Islam is going through a bad streak now. No one knows where it will lead. Christianity didn’t have much to boast about 1,000 years ago, either. That said, meaning in life extends outside of religion because not everyone belongs to the same or any faith.
If we don’t nurture respect for life it can go away. The utter disregard for life and all of its potential displayed by a group like ISIS and gangs on the streets of our cities is almost too overwhelming to consider.
When politics intrudes it is too often not to bolster our respect, but to add its own opportunistic interpretation to a basic problem: life matters and when it is taken with indifference, it can seem like it matters less. That would be a difficult thing to explain to veterans who survived the battlefields in World War II. For them, life had meaning worth dying for. Now, life’s meaning is at risk of dying away. We have too many examples of how little difference it makes.