What brings profound meaning to life and, ironically, what also renders life meaningless, is the fact that the worst thing that can happen to each of us is 100% certain of happening. Individuals and groups have different ways of coping with this difficult fact.
I am curious though as to why you refer to death as the worst thing that can happen to us. Surely death is the most neutral happening in the universe for the one experiencing it? Again, there is no way to rule out the existence of an afterlife but until evidence suggests otherwise, let’s just assume there isn’t, following Occam's razor principle.
If there isn't an afterlife, then death is painless, instant and neutral, the point of life would be then, on a certain level, to die, and the point of death would be to have lived. Could you elaborate on the train of thought which led you to conclude that death is the worst thing that can happen?
Terror of death of self or offspring is hard-wired in us. On a primal level, of the many harms that can come to us, the most extreme is death.
Seeing dying and death at close quarters several times confirmed to me that the process is brutal. That at least can get people in a frame of mind where they seek the relief of death the way we seek the relief of sleep.
Greta wrote: Each moment is in fact deeply limited by the moments that came before, and the tendrils of the past can stretch a long way, well beyond a single lifetime.
I hear your argument and I find it cogent. I agree “each moment is in fact deeply limited by the moments that came before”. Navigation of the moment is the crux of the issue. We have an obligation to choose in every “here and now”. At times we are on auto pilot; seemingly oblivious to the consequences of our decisions. In the next moment we may become deeply determined to move in way that defies or defines good reason. The operative concept here is that we must choose.
Death is part of the equation in determining our path in life. Death and amputation are certainly not conditions I want to experience now. I have been a professional carpenter since age 13 – I am now 67. I have almost killed myself dozens of times. Now more than ever I am very careful in how I work. The arrogance of youth and physical fitness are more of a distant memory than reality. I choose to be careful precisely because I am aware of negative consequences.
I suggest that the choices are not that great, and at any given time most available choices are too disastrous to rationally contemplate. The antics of the naive, children and other species - those who are liable to dumb choices - are similarly entertaining to us.
It would seem that our natural negativity bias at least in part drives increasing carefulness with age (me too). When we are young the possibility of losing future potentials seems less worrisome than losing all that we have built up over the years. To follow the last post's analogy, we are more in the grip of the tendrils of the past when we are older - all those connections we build up over the years, both socially and cognitively. I suppose with age the past and future become more important and "real" to us.
On a personal level, what life meant to me has changed for me over the years, although some time ago I have assumed the practical aspect to be "have fun, minimise harm and make yourself useful".
But to what end? The betterment of humanity? Why? What does it mean that life emerges and then spreads out as much as it can, increasingly taking nonliving material and bringing it to life? Further, it seems that conscious beings have their own "magic wand", converting ever more unintelligent animal and plant matter into intelligent human matter (now humans have the highest biomass of any large species on Earth).
It seems that life, consciousness and intelligence bloom out of nonliving stuff like a bacterial plague, recycling the non-living, non-conscious and unintelligent into itself. Matter emerged similarly, gradually converting disordered gas clouds into ordered stars and planets. So perhaps the answer to the OP's question lies in the question of what may yet emerge from, and supersede, humanity's conscious intelligence - or what could become of that?