Justin, Jeff, and the search for a meaningful life

Over the weekend the Liberal Party of Canada chose Justin Trudeau its new leader.  The following picture of Trudeau and his young family appeared on the front page of the Globe and  Mail:

This image prompted an interesting comment from a student of mine who saw the newspaper on my desk.  He said, “That’s basically the perfect life right there.”

It got me thinking.  Justin Trudeau would certainly seem an example of a person who is living what many would consider a perfect life.  He is young (for a federal leader), handsome, intelligent, educated, accomplished, born into a family of power and privilege, with a beautiful wife and two charming children.  In a few years from now he may very well top it all off with the highest elected office in one of the world’s wealthiest countries.  What’s not to admire? Or envy?

This student of mine had more than a touch of envy in his voice.  Truth be told, the line between admiration and envy is often a thin one, less a line of clear demarcation and more a shifting boundary defined by one’s own self-perception.

It brought me back to my vocation, as so many things do.  Because certainly one thing we strive to do as teachers is help students create, if not a “perfect” life, then at least an exemplary one.

But what do we have to offer our students in this regard? When they are in kindergarten we tell them they can be anything they want to be, that the entire world is open to them, that they face no limits at all.  By the time they reach high school, most of them have figured out that this isn’t true.  There are only a few Justin Trudeaus, only a few Olympic athletes, only a few rock stars, neurosurgeons, best-selling authors, high-powered corporate attorneys, and Fortune 500 CEO’s.

This student and I ended up having a pretty interesting conversation about what exactly constitutes a meaningful life.  As part of the conversation we talked about another not-quite-young man, a young man named Jeff.

Jeff is the titular character in the 2011 comedy-drama film Jeff Who Lives at Home, the creation of independent American film makers Jay and Mark DuplassHe is portrayed by actor Jason Segel in a truly inspired performance.  Jeff is the opposite of Justin Trudeau.  In his early thirties, he has no friends, no job, and spends most of his time watching television in his mother’s basement and dreaming about the possibility that everything happens for a reason, that even his disappointing, lacklustre life has a greater purpose.

It does.  In the film’s climax he saves two children from drowning, and film’s central conceit is that Jeff’s entire life was building to that one, defining moment.  Now of course Jeff is a fictional character, and not only is Jeff Who Lives at Home a work of fiction, it is also unabashedly whimsical and fantastical in its outlook.  Yet I think there is a profound truth in Jeff’s story nonetheless; I am reminded of the words of Noam Chomsky who said that to really understand the human condition we should look not to the physical sciences of biology, psychology, and genetics, but to great art such as Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare.  Granted, Jeff Who Lives at Home is not great art.  But as a thoughtful work of cinema it is certainly good art.  And like all good art, it tells the truth about the human condition.

The truth, then, is this: a meaningful life need not be defined by consistent greatness or enviable celebrity.  It need not consist of power or privilege.  A meaningful life can be found in one defining moment, a moment of courage, a moment of bravery, a moment of dignity.  Mother Teresa summed up the essence of this idea when she said, “Most of us cannot hope to do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.”