Discourse Night – Meaning in Life, Does it Matter?

Thursday, Sep 4, 2014
by Gwen McNamara, Communications Coordinator

Over home-cooked meals, incoming freshmen and Princeton University faculty and staff gathered at Community Action (CA) sleep sites throughout Princeton, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia and New York City Sept. 3 to ponder a really big question: what makes life meaningful?

Discourse Night, an annual Community Action event sponsored by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, brings students and faculty together with community members to discuss a book focused on particular social or societal issues. This year, Discourse Night used Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s Pre-read selection, “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters” by Susan Wolf, to spark discussion. 

At Trinity Cathedral in Trenton, President Eisgruber and Pace Center Director Kimberly de los Santos conversed with 14 freshmen and undergraduate student leaders taking part in the CA Hunger Group. Diane Subber, IT Program Specialist with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, the Rev. Rene John, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, and Deborah Ford, Music Director at Trinity Cathedral, also joined the conversation.

“As the one who imposed this book on you, I’m delighted to be here and welcome you to Princeton,” said President Eisgruber. “I’m really interested to hear what you think about this book.”

As discussion developed, students and community members asked tough questions – Is happiness just an emotion? Is it OK to do something you love, just because you love it? Should we value what others think is meaningful? Responses and perspectives varied. 

“Prior to reading this book I didn’t think about leading a meaningful life,” said Kush Patel ’18 from Pittsburgh, PA. “But it’s led me to ask questions and think about why I would find something meaningful.”

“I think to some extent people mistake meaning for being remembered,” said Devyn Holliday ’18 of San Francisco, CA. “They get too wrapped up with what other people think and live their lives for other people and not for themselves.”

But what others think is meaningful does matter, according to Andrew Sun ’18 of Houston, TX. “What if you love doing something that’s harmful – like being a child molester or rapist as Susan Wolf points out? Society at large views these actions as being wrong and not meaningful. That larger context matters.”

Others felt that even being able to ask the question ‘is my life meaningful?’ is a luxury many people can’t afford. “So many other things occupy our time – jobs, children, making sure there’s a meal on the table,” said Adetobi Moses ’18 from Boston, MA. “It’s not a question everyone can consider.”

Community partners shared valuable insight as well. “Through my own fatherly advice I tell my children that I love what I do, I love being a priest,” said Rev. John. “That doesn’t mean I won’t come home frustrated from a board meeting that just drove me crazy. But I tell them to see the overall happiness and joy. I love what I do and find fulfillment every day.”

“Who I get to be and what I receive is up to me,” added Ford. “I choose happiness. I choose joy. It’s not helpful or meaningful to spend time caught up in the minutia.”

As apple pie made from scratch by student leader Rohey Jah ’16 was served, President Eisgruber shared why he feels asking the question ‘is my life meaningful?’ is so important.

“Do you ask yourself that question?” he asked the group. “Does it resonate? Should I be doing this? Is it worthwhile? Does it give me purpose? … We have many alumni of the University who are tremendously talented and successful, but to a certain extent … they may not feel as though they are doing something that they love, something that matters. Not everyone who is a success can make that kind of statement to say ‘my life is meaningful.’”

The Princeton Pre-read program, initiated by President Eisgruber in 2013, introduces incoming freshmen to Princeton’s intellectual life. "Meaning in Life and Why It Matters" is based on Wolf’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values delivered at Princeton in 2007 and guides readers through a philosophical exploration of what makes a life meaningful – a question President Eisgruber believes is at the heart of a liberal arts education. 

“This conversation has been wonderful,” he continued. “While it won’t appear on your transcript, all of you get an A for your first Princeton precept.”