A Father’s Question

My dad used to always ask, “What’s the meaning of life?” I felt he just wanted to start an interesting conversation. But when I was a kid, I never came up with any good answers; I would mostly repeat back what I had heard someone else say. He got me on camera at maybe 10 years of age shrugging with a smile, “it’s just a bowl of cherries” because that was the answer my grandfather had just given “Life is a bowl of cherries, it’s full of the pits!” followed  by his trademark chuckle. Dad thought this question was so important, that he went around the family gathering with a rented shoulder mounted VHS camera and asked everyone in the family “What’s the meaning of life?” I’m dying to know where this tape is now.

Dad asked everyone the meaning of life: when he first met them after exchanging names, randomly to the other person in the elevator, the mother behind him in the checkout line, walking near him at the park, sitting next to him on the bus, when a friend calls him, and especially at family gatherings. “What’s the meaning of life?” I listened to a lot of answers, and I don’t remember the large majority of them. Most people didn’t answer; that’s why I thought it was a bad question. Because people don’t want to talk about it, it’s a lengthy conversation, and can’t be described down in the 7 seconds it’s socially appropriate to answer it. It also takes some thought, some eloquence, and some deep penetrating soul-searching questions that most people aren’t ready for in line at the grocery store. There’s gotta be a better question out there. 

My sister says that he’d use the question to gauge what was important to her, whether it was babysitting, or the telephone or whatever she was the most into. I’m pretty sure at some point I answered “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

It’s also a bad question because it’s not something that has one overall meaning. At some point in my early adolescence after yet another probing query, I pushed back in frustration. “I have no idea, Dad! For all I know a couple molecules collided out in space somewhere that set off a chain reaction, and then out I came!” And I got the same response I had only ever gotten, “Huh. Interesting.” His refusal to respond at all to anyone’s answer was also annoying. How come he won’t give anything to this conversation? “Why, what do you think it is, Dad?” 

And he replied with the most I ever got out of him, “I like your answer.”

How I Found the Answer

But I wasn’t satisfied. He moved to China shortly after that, and as a True Believing Mormon, I couldn’t accept that answer as sufficient enough to explain “the Gospel.” The question bugged me for years. One could say I was searching for an answer, but I had no idea where to look. And I wanted a better answer by the next time I saw him.

One day in 9th grade seminary, it had to be at the beginning of my first year, my teacher said, “does anybody have any questions? Anything in particular you’ve been thinking about?” I didn’t wait too long before I raised my hand and asked, “What’s the meaning of life?” He said there is an answer in the scriptures, and turned us to Second book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon chapter two, verse twenty-five. “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” He told us that the meaning of life is happiness. This stood out to me because my mom’s favorite word is happiness. I thought that sounded good, put it in my holster, and I was locked and loaded and ready to go the next time I saw him.

At the end of that school year, I was going to be spending a month with my Dad in China. I was so excited I packed my seminary scriptures in my carry-on so that was prepared at any minute. I also told myself I could do personal study on the plane. Sure enough, I got off the plane, hugged my dad, and we took a bus to the hotel we were going to stay for a night or two. We check in, get into the room and we’re alone and the first thing he says is, “So tell me, what’s the meaning of life.”

A sly grin grew on my face and I said, “I’ve got the answer right here, in the scriptures.” I had bookmarked 2 Nephi 2, read the passage highlighted in blue, and finished it with “We are meant to have joy and the meaning of life is happiness.”

He responded, again, “Huh. Interesting.” I hid my crushing disappointment at his usual response. I thought I was going to get some kind of different reaction. 

My frustration growing again I asked, “You tell me, Dad. What do you think?”

“I like your answer.” 

[Insert teenage angsty eye roll emoji here.] Ugh.

As my teen years progressed, I got kind of fed up with the question, the answers, and my dad’s responses to it. He spent several of the following years in China, and I think he only ever asked me one other time before my mission. I kinda flung the old answer at him sans scriptures, “Men are that they might have joy. The meaning of life is happiness.” I think I got an “Oh. Yeah.” out of him that time.

The Foundation of Truth 

But it was on my mission that that lesson was put to the test. One day I got a phone call telling me my dad was very ill. Several phone calls and one day later he was dead. When I talked to my family over the phone about his passing, all throughout his funeral, and any time one of his loved ones has wanted to talk about him, the number one thing people mention is his constant quest for the answer. From the first time my family mentioned it, I realized he hadn’t asked me in a long time. I thought it was a phase he went through, but now I like to think he was just waiting for me to figure it out.

That first phone call, was a turning point in my life, that started me questioning everything I knew about how the world works. Nine years after I got home from Taiwan I quit believing in the LDS church, and even in the nine years of questioning since then, I still haven’t found a better meaning for life than to “have joy.” As towering pillars of my testimony crumbled, slowly reshaped, flimsily rebuilt, and fell apart over and over again, the most solid pillar with the firmest foundation has always been Happiness: find it and share it. Humans do what they think will make them happy. My dad searched his entire life for its meaning, so that I could find it early in my life. And for that I will always be grateful. 

In all my years of searching for Truth in and out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Happiness has been the constant star guiding my actions despite everything changing around me, and is the bedrock foundation of what I know to be True.

But I’m still open for discussion. What do you think the Meaning of Life is?

Merlin J.A. Salisbury

Merlin is either a regular guy or a time-traveling wizard. He has a masters degree in theatre sound from UMKC, and is an IATSE audio engineer in Philadelphia. He spends his time wondering how to create a modern community, and dreaming of buying an old church and turning it into a movie theater.

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