A Catholic Monthly Magazine

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Bill Farrelly

by Bill Farrelly

I CAN'T remember ever having being challenged by trying to understand the meaning of life. I have mulled over the how and especially the why, but as for what it's all about, that has never thrown me.

Having said that, I am interested in what others have to say on the subject. One of the most enlightening explanations – something I stumbled across many years ago – still thrills me. According to the Egyptian god Osiris, the meaning of life is to find joy and to give joy.

Till now I've never thought about having an epitaph but I could, um, live with that one.

It's a lovely thought isn't it? To find joy and to give joy. Most importantly, it's achievable. Equally, it's a two-way street. We are not being asked to be totally selfless, not being pressured as we were in our youth to be perfect. Not even asked to strive for perfection. Not that there is anything wrong with occasionally striving for perfection but it's unhealthy, even dangerous, to constantly seek it.

For large parts of my life I sought joy, which is a very different thing from finding joy. There is nothing inherently wrong with the former provided that it is does not come at the expense of another or by discarding a moral principle. Nevertheless, seeking out joy can be selfish.

Finding joy, on the other hand, suggests happenstance. 

There are oft times when finding it is a piece of cake. Just look at the clouds, the stars, the flowers; listen to a symphony; fly a kite; watch a child taking his first steps; marvel at the dance of a butterfly; stroll on the beach; sit in front of an open fire; read a story to a child; the list of possibilities is endless.

Equally, there are times when joy is as elusive as the end of a rainbow. Paradoxically, the rainbow itself is a source of joy. I was thrilled a couple of years ago to see a perfect rainbow. What need had I of a pot of gold?

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to find joy when the meaning seems to have gone out of our lives: when a partner has died or left us; when a child – whatever age – has died or broken our hearts; when we or a loved one face a life-threatening illness; when age stops us from doing, seeing or hearing; again, the list is endless.

At these moments, or perhaps more sensibly after a suitable period of mourning, it strikes me that one of the most obvious ways to find joy is to give it. It is my experience that I can both tolerate and ease my own pain and loneliness by reaching out to others and sharing theirs.

A much harder challenge I find is to celebrate another's happiness when your own life feels so empty. My steps towards this goal are sometimes very reluctant ones.

A word of caution. As well as being rewarding, giving joy can be quite demanding – we need to be measured in our giving. We need to take time out to recharge our batteries. The alternative is likely to see us fall victim to resentment. I have slipped into this trap.

A couple of years ago I had the great delight of making a new friend, Charlie, a warm and gentle soul with whom I can talk or spar or simply sit in quiet empathy. It is very apparent that each of us is giving and receiving joy.

Serendipitously, today he shared with me a card with the following words of wisdom:

A person is a success
who has lived well,
laughed often
and loved much;
who has looked for the best in others
and gave the best he had.


That surely is another way of expressing what Osiris did an eternity ago.


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