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I had an epiphany last night. I was driving home through a rough area of town where shady backstreets and seedy bars present the face of life’s dark side, a place where once upon a time I hung out with old friends. I recently found out that one such friend, who I hadn’t been in touch with for almost 20 years, had passed away not long ago, aged just 49, of hepatitis B – he was a heroin addict who never quite managed to break free from his addiction.
I drove through the deserted backstreets, and perhaps in a similar way to that which people on the verge of death describe I caught a glimpse in my mind’s eye of all of humanity racing through their lives at breakneck speed alongside each other, their actions speeded up to resemble a film on fast forward. I saw that old friend flitting from home to buy drugs, to then shoot those drugs up with a needle, to collapsing for a while, waking up, needing some more, stealing, scoring, shooting up; his whole life an endless cycle of meeting the needs of his addiction until finally, not even making it to 50, he dropped dead.
And, not for the first time in my life, I wondered about the meaning of life; how can we be sure that our time on Earth ever really means something and we aren’t simply growing into relics, ancestors, someone whose details our descendants will discover in years to come when they set about researching their family tree?
During my twenties I had absolutely no concept of mortality, at least not my own. I smoked and drank and acted recklessly, my arrogance and thoughtlessness fuelled by an increasing reliance upon alcohol. In my early thirties, something hit me between the eyes; a powerful punch of reality, the awareness that one day I would die. I became terrified and despondent all at once, unable to see how people could care about the trivialities in their day-to-day existences; the new shoes, the mediocre job, whether to go for a cream or brown carpet – who cares? One day we will all be dead, and nobody will give a hoot that we ever lived.
I tried, for a while without success, to work out the meaning of life (at least, a meaning that works for me), the reason we are placed on the planet. I have two wonderful children, and I should point out that they have always given my life meaning. What I was searching for was confirmation that I was doing my utmost to get maximum fulfilment out of my time on Earth – that I was doing it right, and not leaving out some vital component of living.
I stopped drinking alcohol two years ago this month because I had become too dependent upon it and I feared that I would die prematurely if I didn’t quit. In the first few months of sobriety, my search for the meaning of my life became even more pronounced, as the nights previously spent half-comatose, blotting out any sense of despondency, were no more; all of a sudden my quest for purpose was thrust into the spotlight of my mind.
And last night it came to me.
The heroin addiction that defined an old friend’s entire adult life took him out of humanity, away from society. He couldn’t see further than his next fix, and so was unable to play a role in his own community.
Likewise, when I drank alcohol regularly and heavily, I had no interest in community life as I was too concerned with meeting the needs of my own addiction.
Since I stopped drinking alcohol, I have developed a keen desire to help other people who are trying to get on top of their alcohol dependencies – it wasn’t enough that I had found sobriety, I became overwhelmed with the urge to support others in their own battles with booze.
And therein lies the key, the secret to the meaning of life that escaped me for so long while I spent my days in the fog of alcohol dependence: We just need to help others. It's so beautifully simple, but so effective in (a) making us feel content and (b) helping to improve another’s life.
In the confines of a life ruled by addiction, we're helpless to help others. Addiction prevents us from fully understanding, and interacting with, humanity.
I am so grateful that I found the strength to stop drinking alcohol, and then to finally arrive at this conclusion – I had noticed in recent months that those restless feelings and emotional unease in relation to my place on the Earth had vanished.
It has been months since I questioned the meaning of my own life and asked what more I can do to find contentment and happiness. I stopped asking myself those questions when I began to try and help other people – I stopped wondering about my purpose when I accidentally happened upon it; being a sober human being, who places other people higher than alcohol.