In writing my last column (Pursuing the Semester’s Theme, 11/22/2010), I sought to better understand the nature of the LSA theme semester, “What makes life worth living?” I wanted to articulate why I felt slapped in the face every time I saw it advertised around campus. I wanted to know the intentions of the professors who organized it. I also wanted to grasp the implications of probing such self-conscious thought among students at the University.

That aspiration to have a sense of what it would mean for us — students who live a specific lifestyle and face a specific set of challenges — to answer the question posed by the theme semester required further conversation, consideration and a longer word-count. I decided that I should learn about how anyone considers the meaning of life and then assess how well-situated we are to make the consideration ourselves.

I spoke with the two professors who organized the theme semester, Psychology Professor Christopher Peterson and Ford School of Public Policy Professor John Chamberlin. I suspected both perspectives would offer personal and professional insight on considerations of the meaning of life. I also hoped they would maintain an awareness of undergraduate students’ unique position. From our conversations and from my own introspection, I think I’m on to something.

Answering the question “What makes life worth living?” requires two steps: first, living an active life that has meaning and second, living a contemplative life that allows for the appreciation of meaning. At first glance, it seems that action requires harder work and leaves more room for mishap than contemplation. After all, things that stand in our way of action are often out of our control, whereas what stands in our way of thought is under no one else’s control but our own.

When I asked Chamberlin what made his life worth living, he said his theme semester t-shirt reads, “Justice Makes Life Worth Living.” His answer is consistent with duties of government, which his field (public policy) is responsible for studying. When I asked Peterson the same question, he responded in an e-mail, “work, love, play and service.” A basic understanding of the duties of government might demand that a just society allows all people to lead an active, meaningful life of work, love, play and service.

So if society does its job in guaranteeing the freedom to actively pursue happiness, does it have a further obligation to guarantee the space to contemplatively pursue happiness?

Internalizing the richness of life requires time — time to wander (both in place and in thoughts), time to form beliefs as well as challenge them, and time to create something. But, as Chamberlin and many others of his generation have noted, we — as University students — don’t have that kind of time. We’ve found ourselves in a system that places extreme pressure on the task of leading an active, meaningful life but inhibits our ability to engage the equally important task of contemplation.

Chamberlin acknowledged the conundrum. He noted that the students he admits to the Ford School of Public Policy are expected to have top grades, display serious leadership in several extracurricular activities and remain interesting, energized and engaging people. We have a campus full of students who race from one source of meaning to the next, rarely stopping to breathe let alone read a piece of fiction for pleasure. These students’ ability to lead a maximally fulfilling life is stifled by their leading lives that are too full.

The pathways to meaning and happiness vary with each person. For some, love is the answer. For others, it’s freedom. Peterson said cheering on the Wolverines could be a primary source of purpose for someone.

But the “What makes life worth living?” t-shirt that can be worn by everyone reads “balance.” We seem to live in a culture that’s collectively off-balance. I would call for a serious reprioritization. In order for society’s future leaders to do their jobs well, they must be nourished emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. As we transition into finals and then into our all-too-short winter break, I hope we’re forced to consider the balance in our own lives and restore what’s not there.

Libby Ashton can be reached at eashton@umich.edu.

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