03/20/2013 01:03 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Does Everyone's Life Have Meaning?

"For those whose lives are and always have been without human hope or promise; for those for whom all hope is dead...for the terrible wasting of lives for which we human beings are responsible; we say: Lord have mercy."
-- "Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb," Station XIV from a version of the Stations of the Cross used by pilgrims to Saint George's College in Jerusalem

Something deep within us wants our lives to matter. We find meaning and purpose -- or make it -- in a myriad of ways: We do our best by our loved ones, volunteer to make the world better, live by a spiritual path that draws us closer to God, make people smile. This "meaning making" works for us, most of the time.

It is also, if not instinctive, then nearly automatic. Think of what we say at funerals: She lived a good long life. He was a pillar of the community. See how many people loved her. I'm a better person because of him. We evoke the meaning in that person's life. It is important to us.

Lately, though, I've been thinking about a more difficult case: people whose lives seem to make no sense whatever.

This hit me hard when an old friend died some years ago.* She lived with an overwhelming mental illness throughout her life and did little to manage it. From what I could see, her relationships brought no joy to those around her. She acted out -- a lot. She was interested in little besides wealth. She died much too young.

At her funeral, I wanted to say all those usual things that make meaning out of life. I had nothing.

Perhaps you know someone like this. He might be a small-time drug dealer who neglected his children before a stray bullet ended his life. She could be an executive who lived solely to climb the corporate ladder and stepped all over people on the way up. Maybe he's a person who drifts through life -- taking no risks, forming no relationships, living only for his own pleasure -- and toward the end realizes he's done nothing of value.

This is particularly unsettling when you're a person of faith. I see God as encompassing the cosmos, guiding, shaping, and lending a sense of purpose to our small individual places therein. I am convinced that each of us makes a contribution to the larger we--and it may be more important than we can ever imagine.

Then there was my friend, who exposed the flaws in those comfortable beliefs. Her tragic life forced me to think deeper. And the results surprised me.

First, we never know the full story of anyone. At my friend's memorial service I was stunned to see 200 people show up. Many shared their remembrances of small kindnesses that I could never have imagined. I will never know how she overcame her personal demons to offer these kindnesses. But she had touched people. She had made a difference. I had jumped to conclusions about the sum total of her life, and frankly I was ashamed.

Second, we need people whose lives appear to be "without human hope or promise." Even if she had done nothing "positive" whatever, my friend's life still sounds the alarm about the imperative to take mental health seriously. Other lives might stand as eloquent testimony to the need for risk, for devotion to others, for working toward a better world rather than pursuing selfish ambition. Everyone's life holds lessons for us -- which means everyone contributes.

This line of thinking should come as no surprise to Christians, particularly as Holy Week approaches. To the casual observer, the naked man who carried a heavy cross to his death could not have looked like much. He was an itinerant teacher from a rural backwater in an age of many itinerant teachers. He taught some good things, caused some brief excitement, and now was brought to nothing. If anyone could identify with a "meaningless" life, he surely could.

And look what happened. We are still talking about him two millennia later.

No wonder St. Benedict instructed his monks to "treat everyone as Christ." Yes, we can affirm everyone's life has meaning, as Christ's life has meaning. And we must treat them with the honor and love that meaningful beings deserve.

*Some details have been changed to honor the privacy of my friend's loved ones.