What My 83-Year-Old Great Grandma Taught Me About The Meaning of Life

My mother tells me the story and it always makes me smile.

I was two at the time and my only recollection of it is in the form of a photo that was snapped a little under thirty years ago.

We were sitting on the balcony — me, in a toddler’s yellow chair facing the rail, and her, my great Grandma, in an armchair next to me. Mom walked up to us and called us in for dinner. Grandma looked up at her and said:

“I’d like to watch the sunset before we go inside. It’s a day in my life that is now gone. I want to live it until the very last minute.”

Dr. Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist, and spiritual lecturer explains that the first seven years of your childhood are critical to how you develop through your teenage and adult life. According to his published research, “the brain predominantly operates in vibration or frequency called theta for the first seven years. Theta is a frequency lower than consciousness.”

He compares the brain to an information processor computer hard drive and reveals that by observing our family members and communities in the first seven years, we acquire the learned behaviors that go on to define what we believe and how we think and act.

In other words, in our early years, we absorb from the environment around us because our subconscious mind encodes all that we receive: the good and the bad. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to fall in the love with sunsets. Perhaps that’s why a daily pleasure of mine is to stop whatever it is I’m doing and watch the evening sun flood the sky and sea with gold and crimson.

But when I cast my gaze back on that day and reflect upon the seeds that had been planted, I smile and feel nothing but gratitude. Because while I was just a child sitting on a tiny chair, imagining a world of my own, the woman who was scripting the last few pages of her story on earth, sewed the precious meaning of life, deep within the fertile fabric of my thoughts.

The One Question We Should Be Asking Ourselves at The End of Every Day

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, the sunset tells a story. It paints a picture of the path ahead. It reminds you that all great things are in a process of rising and returning. Plants blossom, then return to their roots. Waves rise to shore, then return to the ocean. And, if you’re lucky, the sun will rise again in the morning, to gift you a new day, but then it will return, taking back with it a day from your life on earth.

With every sunset, a day is gone from your life.

The question is, then: What good have you done with it?

What good have I done today? That’s a question I’m now asking myself every day before I go to sleep. And it’s a question we should all be asking ourselves, collectively.

“What good have I done today?”

Good can be a small act of kindness. Good can be you sitting down on that chair of yours to write or paint. Good can be honoring your work by simply showing up to it even when you didn’t feel like doing it.

Good can be an act of self-care. Meditating to calm the mind. Reading to expand your knowledge. Exercising to move your body. Good can be the practice of mindfulness, love, or compassion.

At its core, good is about being useful. It’s about honoring the gift of time that you’ve been given. And the way I see it, asking yourself this question every single day will help you become more intentional about the life you want to live. It moves you from the default state of prospection into a more mindful state of introspection.

Prospection is a process through which we think about the future by imagining what we want to happen. “Our theory of pragmatic prospection holds that people think about the future so as to guide actions to bring about desirable outcomes,” is what psychology professors Baumeister, Vohs, and Oettingen explain in their research in The Review of General Psychology.

The problem is, however, that when we prospect before first introspecting — when we plan for what’s ahead before even looking inward to reflect on what has already passed — we’re doing ourselves enormous disfavor by not allowing ourselves to process our emotions and thoughts.

As author Meg Wheatley puts it:

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

In other words, without reflection, we go blindly on our way, failing to know if we’ve done any good, with all that we really have — today.

So, What’s The Meaning of Life?

To answer that questions, let’s go back to her words: “I’d like to watch the sunset before we go inside. It’s a day in my life that is now gone. I want to live it until the very last minute.”

It’s a day that is now gone; I want to live it until the very last minute. 

What’s the meaning of life, you ask?

The meaning of life is to make every day count, as best as you can. That’s it. It’s to be alive. It’s to be conscious of your presence here on earth and do what good you can with it. It’s to find peace and tranquility within the constant process of rising and returning.

The meaning of life is to be useful, helpful, loving, and compassionate while remembering to live and enjoy every minute of it. I think Ralph Waldo Emerson captured it well with his words:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

The Recipe for a Life Well-Lived

Your day begins with the sunrise and ends with the sunset.

So when the sun sets, ask yourself, what value have I added on this day of my life? If you can’t answer that question, then you’ve missed the point of what it means to live: To do good with what you have, to honor your purpose passionately and contribute to society, to show compassion and love, to share experiences with others, and to do your best to enjoy every minute of it.

In the words of Alan Watts:

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

A life well-lived is a life where we do our best to stay connected to the present moment, so we can appreciate each and every day, as it comes and goes, and honor it with what good we can do for ourselves and others.

Every morning Benjamin Franklin would rise and ask himself this question: “What good shall I do this day?” It was a habit that kept him grounded in purpose and steered him clear from feeling lost in life.

Every evening, you should reflect on your day and ask yourself something similar: “What good have I done today?”

Answer that question, night after night, and you’ll find yourself scripting the recipe for a life well-lived.

Oh, and while you’re at it, enjoy the magic of sunsets

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