Opinion: Finding Meaning 

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The Meaning of One Life 

By Skip Hellewell

Want your life to make a difference for good in the world? Google the question, and you’ll get a plethora of lists: “X ways to make a difference.” 

X varies. It can be 4, 5, 6, 7 (most common), 6, 10, 25, 51, etc. 

Read the lists, and you’ll find a mind-numbing litany of nice things:

Listen, be polite, donate, smile, eat less meat, etc. 

Hah. It’s all good—I’m a big believer in nice, though a bit clumsy in practice. It’s the Beautiful Wife who makes it an art form. But those suggestions are nothing more than good manners.

There’s a better answer.  

It came to me during the funeral of Laguna’s Joan Kimball, who recently passed. Have children, then invest your best years in helping them be as good as they can. If you do, it seems those best years keep on rolling as the joys of grandchildren follow and, if you’re blessed to live long enough, great-grandchildren. In the case of Stan and Joan Kimball’s sixty-seven-year marriage, seven sons had twenty-seven grandchildren, who then had a growing number of great-grandchildren. If I counted right, the Kimball clan totaled sixty-one and a half descendants at the funeral.

We’re talking about this because the US birth rate has steadily declined since the 2007 Great Recession, dropping about 20 percent and falling well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. In the most recent data, half of our states recorded more deaths than births. The trend has no precedent and has led to scholarly articles such as, “The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates since the Great Recession.” The bottom line is the best way of making the world better seems to have fallen out of fashion.  

Here’s a suggestion for young people: Ignore the fashion of the day and learn from the life of Joan Kimball. It must have been hard work, rearing that big family, but it was what she loved, and she is remembered for being “happy and positive 24/7.” Joan had a magic power, getting seven boisterous boys to do what they didn’t want to do by treating them as though they were already the person she hoped they would become.

The Kimball boys, Stan III, Steve, Peter, John, Tony, Scott and James, with parents, Stan Jr. and Joan. Photo courtesy of Stan Kimball III.

She was her children’s best cheerleader, and as one son recalled, “I never wanted to disappoint my mother.” Another noted her counsel, “It’s not what you want that makes you happy but what you do,” with this overriding mantra, “Be happy, be kind, ignore the minutia.”  

With condolences to those who wanted children and, for whatever reason, weren’t able to, Joan also experienced sadness—her first child was a daughter who died at birth. Yet the final lesson of Joan Kimball’s life seems to be this: If you want to be happy, invest your life in rearing a great family, and you’ll also make the world better. There’s meaning in that.  

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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