Meaning in life and why it matters

February 19, 2021

The title of this article is daunting and just as a quick disclaimer, no I am not attempting to discover the meaning of life now (that’s a different article for the future). What I will be doing in this article is talking about a man who helped me and hundreds of students like me discover perhaps a fraction of the answer to that question. 

On Feb. 15, 2021, professor Andreas Teuber (PHIL) passed away. For many, especially those who are STEM majors, that may just be a name to you, but to those of us that had the pleasure of being one his students, that means one of the kindest and smartest minds at Brandeis has left us. Famously, Teuber taught one class in particular once every three or four years in which he sought to bring one hundred students with him on a journey to slowly understand, “what meaning is in life and why should we be concerned about it?” This class has had its name evolve over the four times he taught it but in spring 2020 it was named “Meaning in Life and Why it Matters.” The sort of existential philosophy that ties morals and ethics together, not only into how to live life, but into why we live life, was his grand proposition and something many students like myself have always enjoyed pondering. 

The joy of the class and the joy of Teuber was that he never presented his thoughts as the gospel truth—his idea of what made life meaningful and why it mattered was not pressed upon anyone else. Throughout the class, he made it so that we each found our own meaning in our lives and defended why they mattered. Our very first exercise in the class involved writing two lists, one of the good things in life and one of the bad things in life. He gave us almost the entire semester to write this list. Between when he told us about this assignment and when he graded it, he walked everyday into class with a smile and his signature black outfit. 

For someone who had once held roles in small Hollywood productions and was noted for working under some of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Teuber was never seen with an ego. He gave everything to his students, whether it be cookies to every student in class or patiently answering every question his students had after class even when the line for questions went up the lecture hall stairs. 

Teuber gave everything he had to others to make them feel like the most significant person in the room. You could see that drive and passion to accomplish that in his lesson plans. He took every opportunity to show us something that made us feel small. Whether it be the question of if every day were to repeat, how would we feel meaning, to how we feel as a person and if we were presented with someone during the age of technology and huge corporations who mine our data, we were to hate how we would provide meaning to them. 

These questions made us feel small, but no matter how we felt, Teuber always found a way of making every question show us how big we really were. Whether it be from the fact that meaning exists in our free will, meaning exists in us being able to create who we are or the fact that meaning can be found in our ability to love others and give meaning to them. There was never a class you left feeling like meaning was not out there—suddenly it was everywhere. 

Now, yes, there were sillier moments when we had to find meaning in the context of hookup culture, but no matter the issue, meaning in our lives was everywhere. That was his point throughout the course, because any good philosophy professor leaves you with more questions and confusion than when you started. We started with two lists and, over the course of the class, my lists changed quite a lot, with the good things being adjusted constantly, from ice cream to my family to sports to hugs. 

I was never confident in my answer, and my confusion only increased as the class went on, especially because I could never discover what the bad things in life were—that list was always empty. However, Teuber’s effect is not in the classroom when you expect to see it, it is when you are thinking outside of the classroom walls. Because he can give cookies and answer questions and make us feel important, but the real learning came way after the final bell and only when you realized it did it all make sense. 

His power as a professor was in making others happy. In that moment, I was able to finish my list of the bad things in life because I realized what he wanted us to know all along. The only bad things in life as I wrote are lists of the bad things in life because everything in life can be a good experience if you can find a way to make people happy. Those who cannot find that are unhappy in this world and can write tangible objects or moments down on that list of the bad things in life. Those who are happy know that when you know what goes on the list of the bad things in life that the list of the good things in life can be solved—it’s everything.  

All Teuber did was smile when I told him what I wrote down on my lists; I would like to think that in that moment, he knew his work made a difference—he could see why it mattered. Andreas Teuber gave everything to those around him, and as an individual who learned from him, a university that benefited from his boundless positivity and a world that got to see such a happy man, the least we can do is spend one day doing something for someone else—one day when we give everything we have to others to find our meaning in life and truly see why it matters.   

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